Monday is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, which I take as an occasion to honor the man but also to honor the American promise that changes for the better can be achieved, albeit via earnest efforts and personal costs.
At my age King and the mid-century struggle for what was then called “Civil Rights” were not history — they were current events. I can tell you that despite the somewhat anodyne holiday we celebrate this year, these things were in King’s time as fractious and deadly as any issues today. Some of the immediate issues in the struggle were things we might now assume are self-evident, equivalent civic rights for Black Americans: the rights to vote, to travel, to sit in a restaurant, to speak for change. I assure you these things were controversial, and that it was easy to find short and long arguments as to why they were impossible or contraindicated by the inherent and/or empirical nature of Black or white America. Those things, or so it was widely said, were impossible, impractical, ill advised, a poor use of resources, against human nature.
Are any of my readers thinking that the consideration of history including so many instances of injustices is depressing? Or what of the fears that this will cause inordinate shame? Let me then point out on this holiday: societies can advance, costs borne in the struggle for those advances will be honored. On July 4th we celebrate the improbable founding of our country as “A republic if we can keep it.” On Memorial Day we celebrate great losses to preserve that country. On your choice of Labor’s Day we say our nation takes broad-based work. On Martin Luther King Day we can see all those things too. while being reminded that King was not a President or General, but a man who represented and gained his power from us, American citizens, asking adamant with the effectiveness of soul-force, for our country to stop doing what harms us, to start doing better. Isn’t that a fine thing to celebrate?
The 56-foot-tall Birmingham Vulcan exhibited before installation overlooking the city. How the iron man looked around the time MLK was in Birmingham. How it looks today atop it’s base and observation tower. African ancestor: Ptah. The MLK memorial statue.
Are any readers still reading who feel what I wrote above is jejune? If you’re still here, thank you for your patience, but I’m about to try your patience some more. “The Birmingham Vulcan (for MLK)” has never found an audience, and there are times when I can see why. I have an unreasonable love for unusual connections — things that in my mind connect but to most seem trivial. You’d think poetry might allow some license in such things, but that’s not so. When I showed this to my former group of poets when we were all alive together a few years ago, this piece was to them confusing and without a shred of emotional connection. My takeaway? I had portrayed nothing of the wide-ranging connections to them then. It’s gone through a couple of revisions since, likely improving things, but the core problem is that this piece requires a somewhat unique combination of knowledge to make sense.
So, let me take the usually foolish step of providing a brief decoder ring to the mythological story “The Birmingham Vulcan” tells. Poets and songwriters: you should know this is a bad idea. “The Waste Land” and “American Pie*” aside, few readers like the impression that the poem knows something they don’t.
My poet group first-readers stopped right off at the second word. “Who’s this Solon?” Short answer, he’s a big macher for classical Greek Athens and it’s system of government. “What’s he doing in Africa?” Plato told a story in one of his Symposiums that Solon went to Egypt, and the learned priests there told him that he had no idea about the history of his region. Now this is an interesting story choice in that the Greeks were famous for thinking they were exceptional, and here are these foreign Africans telling them they knew more about history than they did.
“OK, so who’s this iron man?” He’s Hephaestus to the Greeks, but to the Egyptians he was Ptah,** and to the Romans he was Vulcan. All three of these ancient gods were makers and metalworkers. Hephaestus has some additional particulars: he was segregated from the other Olympians, was described as deformed or ugly, and in a connection that will come up later, he was also the patron of weavers.
Birmingham arrives in the second stanza. When I said this was connected to MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that rang a bell, but what’s lesser known is the reason the southern American city that jail was in was called Birmingham. They wanted to be an industrial city dealing with iron, steel, and metalwork, like unto Birmingham England. And yes, they actually erected a giant statue of Hephaestus/Vulcan at his forge to overlook their town early in the 20th century.
Did the statue’s maker make him clearly Afro-American? Nope, I don’t think the city fathers*** would have paid for any such depiction of Vulcan. But sometime between the World Wars they painted this iron statue brown, either to hide the corrosion or to make the connection to iron more plain.
Third stanza: segregation and regulation to lower paid jobs. One of the “Well, you don’t understand, it just works better that way” situations that King went to Birmingham to oppose.
Fourth stanza: King arrives. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is as wide-ranging as an Emerson essay in terms of references, but I loved this little noted connection: King was in a city of foundries and chose as an example of soul-force civil disobedience the men from the biblical book of Daniel thrown into a fiery furnace for disobeying the ruler.
Fifth stanza: “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is not written to dispute overt racists or the segregationists. Rather it was addressed to ostensible supporters who raised objections to getting on with stopping what was hurting the country and offending justice. The non-segregationist position was to object on a wide range of fronts to that civil rights movement — some with practical, strategic or logistical concerns, some seeking to assuage those whose “culture” and “traditions” might be offended. And of course, many too were silent on those issues out of fear, ignorance, or distaste for struggle. King spoke to those too in his letter.
The original version of this piece was called “The Cord of Life,” a phrase mysteriously used in King’s letter, and one I loved for its connection to Hephaestus, and so it remains in this stanza.
I trimmed some stanzas as the poem went through revision that directly referred to the infamous Birmingham Sunday terrorist bombing of a church during the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. A great many poems and songs have already sung of this and of the four schoolchildren killed going to Sunday School, so I hope it’s still remembered. That act was so offensive that the terrible sacrifice helped move public opinion. The sixth stanza is all that remains of that matter, and I still feel the song is a bit long, but I left this one in so that there’s some motivation for the Vulcan statue to magically speak in the concluding stanza.
The last stanza as the silent statue finally speaks has been worked over several times. I still hope it has some power on this day. You can hear my sung version of “The Birmingham Vulcan (for MLK)” with the player below, or for those who don’t see the player, with this highlighted link.
*I admire the former and am generally uninterested in the latter. So even for the exceptions this doesn’t always work.
**Ptah, venerated particularly in Memphis. As in the delightful Talking Heads lyric “Cities” got away with it: “Memphis, home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks.” That song, like mine, is briefly referring to the “African origin” theory/myth that assuming that Western culture started with the Greeks ignores that African cultures may have informed the Greeks.
***The writer’s group, poets of good taste, disliked my play on words “foundering men.”