Junction City man and Kansas State University Music professor Michael Brown had the privilege, as a young child, of hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at his grandmother’s church in Harlem.
He was somewhere between the ages of 5 and 7.
Brown recalls the church being packed with rapt listeners.
“When he spoke, it was quiet,” he said. “You could hear an ant fart. It was that quiet — it was kind of eerie — and then he would talk.”
People felt, he said, like King was speaking directly to them, not as members of the crowd but as individuals, drawing attention without commanding it.
"He didn't demand attention,” Brown said. “ It was as if when he spoke, it was just the natural, normal thing to do — kind of like a fish trying to go upstream."
King’s speech was moving and he spoke, as he often did in such public appearances, of peace.
According to Brown, King described a ‘silent majority,’ a concept that was new to him as a young child. He also introduced Brown to the concept and dangers of apathy.
"As a child, you don't know what it means,” Brown said. "You just know that something (isn’t) right, or you know that that this something has to change, but you have no understanding. You just recognize it when you see it."
This happened twice during his childhood, he said.
Not long after Brown heard him speak for the second time, King was assassinated.
In addition to his encounter with King, Brown also encountered Civil Rights Era activist Malcolm X, when the same grandmother who took him to see King took Brown down the street to a temple where Malcolm X spoke.
“When he spoke, you got the impression that he would like for there to be peace,” Brown said. “But he had no problem with we're going to violence if it came came to that. You know, like I said, his thing was ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ Completely different than King. King was talking about civil disobedience.”
At such a young age, Brown didn’t pick up on the nuance of this — he wouldn’t understand until much later.
People of all races and religions took part in the protests. In the front, Brown said, black and white people marched together, arm in arm, evenly spaced.
Brown was far too young to take part in the marches, which were marked by violence. Police officers set dogs on the marchers. Firefighters turned the hoses on the peaceful protesters as they marched down the street arm-in-arm.
Under the force of the fire hoses, protesters were pushed down the block, sometimes having the skin stripped from their bodies.
Seeing this uncensored, on live television awakened many questions in Brown. Namely, he wondered why. As a child, he didn’t fully understand what was happening, but he began to wonder — why couldn’t these people, who were only trying to walk down the block, do so unmolested? What, if anything, had the protesters done to deserve such treatment?
As an adult, Brown has had the chance to honor the civil rights victories of that era.
Monday, he performed jazz as part of an ensemble with other musicians during Junction City’s Martin Luther King Day Celebration at the C.L. Hoover Opera House — an annual event honoring the MLK Day holiday.
Brown has taken the lessons of King and of Malcolm X and applied parts of both in his own life. Today, he has found they both had their points.
"I've never been one about peace, but I never been one to go start anything either,” Brown said. “I’ve always believed that you do what you’re supposed to do and sometimes your situation will dictate what you’re supposed to do.”
Brown said his faith tells him he should lean toward non-violence, which he does.
Brown said he believes racism has been greatly reduced in American society since King’s time, but that apathy had increased and common sense appears to have decreased to some degree.
“I've found that most people that I come across, are not necessarily racist in its truest sense,” he said. “But there’s a lot of callousness. it's not that they hate you or even dislike you. They just don't care. You know, it doesn't affect them.”
People should, he feels, involve themselves in issues that don’t personally have an impact on them, but that in doing so they should ask themselves what they are accomplishing and should take into consideration the needs of the groups they purport to defend.
Brown said he believes in a measure of moderation.
“We’re at a point to where the left and the right are fighting each other to the point that they want to actually do damage, they want to destroy each other,” he said. "I was always under the impression that the right has a certain point of view, the left has a certain point of view. And where those two agree, there's no issues.”
And where there are disagreements, Brown feels there is a chance to communicate and work out differences.
Such discussion is important, but some people — those who are truly steeped in hate — can’t be communicated with, he said.
Such people should be avoided when possible, Brown said.
And if they can’t be avoided?
“You're going to clash with them, because there's no way around it,” Brown said. "You're going to clash with them. So I lean more towards peace. Like I said, I've never had a problem with going to war, you know? Because at some point, I’ve got to think, ‘okay, how is this going to end?’ I can either be a regular person just doing regular things. Or I can be the person that is always kicked on, is always punched on, is always put out of the way.”
He does his best, he said, to teach his children the life lessons he has learned by living through the Civil Rights movement, making sure they have experiences and meet people from all walks of life.
“This nation, however you look at — how it was made, how it was built, how it became an economic powerhouse, leadership in in all aspects of life — no matter how you look at it, whether you like it or not, it's the diversity that sets us apart from everyone else,” Brown said. "When you do things that challenge that diversity, to destroy it, I don’t care how far to the right you are or how far to the left you are. You’re damaging the very things — the foundations that we take for granted."