DOWN YONDER, FL. – The family was gathering. Food was on the table. Well-wishers and mourners had been stopping by the house all day.
Most of them rang the front doorbell. But a knock at the back door raised curious eyebrows of the family members gathered for the moment in the kitchen.
Outside the door stood one of the most familiar faces ever to grace that farming home. A tall, elegant woman who carried her head and shoulders high, she refused to let her demeanor reveal the troubled years of her life.
“I heard about Mr. Ernest,” the woman said. “I’m so sorry. He was a good man, good to me and mine.”
The woman was ushered into the house enthusiastically, gratefully. She’d come a long way to pay her respects, taking public transportation as far as it would carry her and walking the rest of the way.
How she’d heard about Mr. Ernest’s death was never made clear. There had been a short newspaper piece about it but Mattie couldn’t read – she never been given the chance to learn. Rather than schooling in her young years, she was working.
Her handsome and dark brown face radiated the sight of seeing so many old and familiar faces, some of which she’d seen mature from childhood to adulthood. Her face, now framed by graying hair, broke into that bright smile that for so many years was an integral part of that farmhouse.
“Mr. Earnest,” as she always called him had, indeed, been good to Mattie and her family – in his own way and in a way dictated by the social mores ofFlorida’s old, white society.
Mattie and her husband, Jimmy, lived on the farm for many years. Mr. Ernest gave them the old family house when a new one was built. Jimmy worked in the pasture and groves alongside Mr. Ernest. Mattie worked in the house with Miss Mary.
Mr. Ernest had been employer, benefactor, even arbiter when the need arose. He tried to treat his employees with respected and dignity, the way he treated everyone – but with Mattie and Jim, the attitude was actually one of benevolent paternalism, the social mores of the day.
It was a different era, a different time, one best left behind but not forgotten for fear of it being repeated.
The times had changed greatly by that balmy spring morning when Mattie stopped by the old farm house to pay her respects. Martin Luther King, Jr., had preached, led, taught, suffered and died trying to make sure the discrimination and paternalism of the past gave way to a new dignity, new self-esteem and a new sense of independence and social advancement.
Although he’d never been to this part of ruralFloridato lead a campaign, he’d been to the big cities. His message and his mission touched the lives of everyone gather in that farmhouse that morning.
But still, Mattie came to the back door. Granted, it was the door used by nearly everyone in the family. Hardly anyone actually used the front door. Mattie had no doubt seen other people arriving at the same time and going to the front door. But this was Mr. Earnest to whom she was coming to pay her respects. She chose the back door.
It has been almost 60 years since Martin Luther King began the campaign that would transform this nation. But the transformation is not yet complete.
Had the scene repeated itself today, Mattie might have chosen the front door. But Mattie was still a prisoner of the times. Mattie died in aTamparest home. She was practically penniless. Mr. Ernest’s family might have done more to ease her comfort in her last years but they didn’t. We have still not reached the social midnight about which Dr. King frequently talked.
The dawn is closer but it hasn’t yet arrived. Faith, however, is inching the hours closer to a dawn where everyone is judged “more by the content of their character than by the color of their skin” and front doors are there for everyone.