Poet, president of N.C. Association of Black Storytellers to speak
Beverly Fields Burnette, a school social worker from Raleigh, will be speaking today at Livingstone College as part of the school’s commemoration of the 40-year anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King was gunned down at a motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968.
Burnette is a published poet and president of the N.C. Association of Black Storytellers. She is also a 1968 graduate of Livingstone.
Burnette was a senior social work student at Livingstone at the time that King was assassinated.
She’ll be speaking with students about that tragic time, and other happenings during the civil rights era. Today’s presentation will be held from 12:45 to 1:45 p.m. in Tubman Theatre on the school’s campus.
“At that time, I was happy to be involved with my social work field placement for graduation,” Burnette said. “The first day of my assignment in January 1968, I met a white young man, Robert Newman, who was working for VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America.) He was given the task by the agency to drive me around and work with me, as I completed my community organization assignments. Robert and I worked well together, and he asked if I would go with him to a movie on April 4th to celebrate his 20th birthday. “The movie that we saw was a Sidney Poitier movie, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?’ We enjoyed the movie, and when we came out after 9 p.m. that evening, we learned that Dr. King had been shot and killed.
“That news was, indeed shocking, and very difficult to even fathom. Robert and I immediately hurried back to the Livingstone campus, where a play in Varick Auditorium was just ending. Livingstone students were also now emerging from the play to learn the tragic news of Dr. King’s death. The campus was feeling strained and rather frantic. I told Robert to drop me off in the circle on campus and drive immediately off campus. I wasn’t sure what would happen to him, even though he had made friends on campus by playing basketball with some of the fellows.
“In their grief, some students wanted to march downtown that very night, but Dr. French (the dean of students) calmed the campus, organized us, and asked that we not be rash in our decision making. He and the administration planned and organized a march that next day, April 5th. It was a solemn, unified and dignified display of sadness, honor and respect for Dr. King’s legacy.”
Years ago, Burnette wrote a poem remembering King and his tragic death..
“Forty years have suddenly passed, yet, I recall the whole event as if it were yesterday,”she said. “I am still in touch with Robert, especially on his April 4th birthday.”
He turns 60 today.
Burnette’s poem, titled, “Soliloquy to Martin,” follows:
“The dark night they gunned you down,
and thought that your head would topple our body, I was sitting in a movie
where a political message
from the screen,
and from my seat, as well.
“The crowded theater had to see us,
captured us in the hot spotlight
of their curious glare.
We were live action.
I, a thin, black girl
who had lived your poem;
he, a tall, lean white boy
who had heard your song
that we would overcome!
We had come to celebrate his birthday,
a new friendship,
as we dared
to look frowned faces
in the eye.
“Poitier and company portrayed us ó showed our bold, young will, which sought a cure for the ills, the misgivings of society; sought relief from Jim Crow ways and warring days.
The actors guessed “who’s coming to dinner?”
Our presence echoed
“Guess who’s coming to the movies?”
The southern town,
whose clannish, fiery air we breathed,
bragged of two separate but equal church schools,~
places where liberal thinking
set the young upon the seas
of a NEW America.
How ironic that the Klan lurked
and lived just down the street,
and marched…without shame…
to squelch new notions
“The maid in the movie questioned:
‘Who’s coming next,
The Reverend Martin Luther King?’
(She wore my Mama’s apron and her wit.)
But as we sat,
how could we have known
that you would be next, indeed,
not for dinner,
but for sacrifice?
The air outside
that damp April night
oozed the warmth
and newness of spring;
the stifling isolation of winter
now gone like old attitudes.
The news of your falling
slapped our faces,
burst our eardrums,
forced us from our idealistic visions.
How could it be AGAIN
in this America?
J.F.K., now you,
slain by some murderous master
of his demonic craft.
Why do the arms
that embrace the word with love
have to fall limp
from acts of violence?
“In your flight into The Light,
could you see our hands clasp tighter,
meshed in the oneness of your humanity?
Did your Cause brighten,
as your eyes softly flickered,
“Didn’t the executioner know
could not stop…
would not stop the people
from smiles and laughter,
from holding hands,
or sharing love
if they decided to ó
even in this town
of flaming crosses?
“The loss of your head
would never topple hearts
that live your Universal Love.
Instead, your Cause would survive,
The absence of your mortal flesh
is no absence at all
for your spirit looms larger
than your presence.
will adopt your style,
will know your voice,
and unborn others
will strive to fill the gaping hole
you left that night,~
the night they chose your exit-place.
And now each time
we mark your birth and death,
this nation, ó
which still struggles to find Peace,
pauses to pray for your great Dream.
And I call my tall, lean friend,
to remember your message
and relive his birthday night
when a nation learned
of true Sacrifice.