(As we remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1/15/29 – 4/4/68), whose powerful words continue to embolden us to speak and to act to end racial injustice into the 21st Century, I share the following true event from the life of my family which happened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 1996. In the aftermath of Ferguson, et al, the point of my sharing this story, again, is to show how any city in America could potentially be or have been a Ferguson, even Winston-Salem.)
The Night We Became King by Carly Pete
My then twenty-year-old son, Lawrence, knocked at our bedroom door, then rushed into the darkened room; it was after 1:00 in the morning.
“Turn on the light,” I said.
He flipped the switch on the wall, rushed over to kneel at our bedside and whispered over his sleeping dad to me, “Ma, the police just chased me up the path and I didn’t do nothin’! I promise!” he panted. I sat up in bed, for the moment forgetting about the verbal chastisement I’d planned – how Lawrence was disrespecting our house rules, needed to find a job or go back to school, and should set a better example for his younger brother.
“Chased you? What for?” I said.
Mike, my husband, woke. “What happened?”
“Lawrence just got home.”
There was a knock at the front door.
Lawrence paced the floor, raking his fingers through his inch long dreadlocks, eyes bulging, wide and frightened, “Ma, Daddy-M! I promise you, I didn’t do nothin’!”
Unlike the weed smoking, sometimes disrespecting, high school dropout he’d lately become, this Lawrence standing before me reflected the innocence of young Loncy, his preschool self, the child who exclaimed in a moment of epiphany in the parking lot of his daycare center, “Good grief, today is tomorrow!” when he’d forgotten to bring his toy for show and tell. I believed him; he hadn’t done anything wrong. So, why were the police chasing my son?
“Alright, go upstairs,” I whispered. Quickly, Mike pulled on a pair of jeans, I threw on a robe and we answered the door.
Two uniformed officers, both Caucasians, were standing on our front porch. One of them informed us there had been a robbery at the store a block away on Baux Mountain Road, that the attendant said the two suspects were young Black males, that they had seen a man fitting that description enter our house through the side door. We should give them permission to search our house.
I said, “No.”
“But, ma’am, do you realize these men could be dangerous and might harm your family?”
Before my garrulous Chicago-born husband could engage the officers in menial chit chat about the details of the robbery, possibly even tell them the person they saw enter our home was our adult son, I interjected calmly, “No one’s here, but our family.”
I meant no disrespect to my husband, but felt this situation demanded the expertise of a Winston-Salem born Black woman who loved and understood her Black men. I had credentials as a daughter, sister to five brothers, wife, and mother of three sons – Michael, Lawrence and Christopher. I knew firsthand that Black men face many pitfalls in American society simply to grow up undefiled, find decent jobs, and raise a family.
The officers threatened to call headquarters to get a search warrant. We said they needed one. I turned on the television in the living room drowning out the crackling of the police radio. CNN had begun reporting on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., broadcasting excerpts from his “I Have A Dream” speech. The sound of Dr. King’s voice bathed us in a balm of serenity, strengthening our resolve to protect our son and the sanctity of our home. It was King Day for the Banner-Williams Family.
After multiple CNN broadcast loops, the officers returned. When my husband answered, one of them implored Mike to check our house for intruders since we wouldn’t let them do it. Mike obliged; he checked the laundry room area, the adjacent bath and guest room. No, our home was secure from intruders he informed them. He then thanked the officers for their concern, said, “Good night,” and shut and locked the door, rousing ten-year-old Christopher upstairs, who leaned over the banister and asked what was going on. I told him everything was fine, for him to go back to sleep.
Mike and I sat together on the sofa waiting for the officers to return for what seemed a very long time, listlessly awake, while CNN droned over and over again its news reporting interspersed with black and white footage of Blacks and Whites protesting against segregation and for civil rights, the images and commentary spurring us to greater vigilance: We became Civil Rights.
At dawn, the policemen returned and told us they’d found the two suspects hiding under the woodpile of our next-door neighbor’s house. Together, our family had advanced justice, procuring a portion of the Dream, for our sons, for one night.
About Carly Pete: Carly, a 2013 graduate of Salem College, earned B.A. degrees in Communication and Creative Writing. She resides in Winston-Salem, where she works as a communication consultant, lyricist and writer.