"Without Martin Luther King, There Wouldn't Be an Obama"

Old habits die hard. He had hardly sat down when he asked me whether I was a CIA or FBI agent!

“My phone was bugged for 10 years — I promise you it wasn’t plain paranoia. So when something out of the ordinary happens in my life, like this interview, I’m on my guard right away.”

Gerald Durley was a simple foot soldier during the time of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He single-handedly sheds light on the struggle of blacks during this era. Gerald left his home state of Colorado in 1960 for Nashville, Tenn., after having won a basketball scholarship for his talent. He is a giant who reaches almost 2 meters in height. When he arrived in Tennessee, the civil rights movement was in full force with King at the helm. Revolution was in the air; protests were growing in number. Gerald was unaware of the brutality of Southern customs.

“There was racism on the West Coast as well, but it wasn’t as legalized as down there. It was more in the attitude the whites had toward us — this permanent impression that we were inferior. It was ultimately more hypocritical. The South had the sad virtue of being forthright about it.”

So when he stepped off the bus and saw drinking fountains labeled “blacks” and “whites,” he was shocked, but did not give in.

“I clearly walked toward the one for whites, but they immediately stopped me. I nonetheless refused to use the one for blacks.”

Very quickly, this giant threw himself into the fight on campus. He was one of innumerable men who helped King in his quest for equal rights between whites and blacks. Along with his friends, he took over the trains, bus stations and cinemas.

“We went down into town, stood in line and asked for a ticket. At the time, whites sat in the orchestra and blacks in the balcony. We called it the ‘Crow seat’ or ‘Crow nest,’ referring to Jim Crow laws — the name given to racial segregation laws. Obviously, the aim of the game was to get a ticket in the orchestra.”

But several factors complicated his methods. Because he had received a scholarship, his parents, who had not had the chance to go to university, were terrified at the idea that his activism would cause him to lose it. His coach strongly advised him to lay low. But he did nothing of the sort. It was a moment in history. Equality was within reach.

Either Enlist in the Army or Leave the Country

Gerald admits that his activism back then was more political than religious.

“We even found that the way King was proceeding was too soft. We were young, and when you’re young, you often prefer the firmer method.”

Gerald did not yield to Washington, but King’s “dream” would cost him dearly. When he left college, the FBI let him know that he did not really have a choice: He could either enlist in the army or leave the country. Therefore, he joined the first group of volunteers of the Peace Corps — a U.S. governmental agency — and left for two years in Nigeria. Still, the FBI held a tenacious grudge against him and made it clear that Gerald would have difficulty returning to the U.S.

“We were what you call the black expats. Basically, they prevented black activists from returning to the U.S., and so I spent two years in Switzerland, in Neufchâtel. I had a friend over there who was Algerian. It seemed to me that he was living among you, in Europe, under the same conditions we blacks were living in the U.S. Incidentally, he was killed under never-resolved circumstances.”

His return finally came in 1967. He found himself in Indiana, where he took a job in a steel factory. He was 25 years old, and the activism bug had not left his system. He took part in the formation of the famous Congressional Black Caucus, which represented the elected African-Americans in Congress. He then left for Chicago and rejoined the Black Panthers, pursuing his studies at the same time and finally homing in on King’s “dream.” Washington summoned him; he joined the Department of Education. If his activism began devoid of the least bit of religious motivation, Gerald Durley had since come to understand that he could not reach the ranks of power without it.

While working, he enrolled at Howard University where he received a Masters in Divinity. He was 40 years old when he moved to Atlanta.

“When you build a house, first you cast the foundations. King cast the foundations. Without him, the Civil Rights movement wouldn’t have held up. For example, take the case of the American Indians. They fought for their territory, were faced with cavalry, and they lost. King used to say: ‘Love your enemies, and let God take their souls.’ He showed us the way to fight, through the law and through spirituality. And he helped us win.”

“We Are Going to Fight for Hillary. We Have Already Started!”

Since then, Gerald Durley has lived in the “magic triangle,” south of the city, a place where certain people who were close to King live, including Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga, and Rev. Joseph Lowery, founder with King of the formidable Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This famous triangle is inhabited by blacks who can afford houses worth more than $3 million. Was this the intended outcome of King’s dream?

“No, of course not. The outcome of his fight is elsewhere. It is also in Barack Obama, the first black president in America. Without King there wouldn’t be an Obama. But we have to be vigilant, not let our guard down. The tea party is there to remind us. The Republicans are there again, waiting in ambush, ready to change the laws to take away the vote from black people. We’ve dodged a bullet, and two things have kept us really strong: We are neither scared of taking risks nor of self-sacrifice.”

And so, at 72, Gerald Durley continues the fight. I saw him on a Tuesday, but every Tuesday at 7 a.m., he takes his phone and leaves for a video conference that congregates what he calls a “faith group,” a prayer group. The [intended] recipient? Barack Obama. The call reaches Washington via Valerie Jarrett, adviser to Obama. Sometimes Obama joins.

“We are, in a way, a group concerned with political, moral and spiritual vigilance. We keep an eye on things. This morning, for example, we talked a lot about Glenn Beck’s — conservative American polemicist — tweet comparing the actor [portraying Satan] in this pseudo-biblical film to Obama.”

The group is made up of 10 to 20 members, including the most militant Baptist Rev. Al Sharpton. These are men and women who count in the black community, men and women who calm the impatient expectations of certain members and who ask themselves, “But in the end, what has Barack Obama done for us?”

Gerald Durley sweeps away question with, “Obama does all he can.” In reality, the influential leaders of this black community are already working on the next election. The church will even go as far as to try to convince its congregation that infamy cannot strike down marriage for all.

“I admit that I struggled,” whispers Durley, whereas Rev. Joseph Lowery does not say anything.

But the goal is worth it: What is most important is not losing sight of what is possible. So, all set for Hillary?

“Oh yes, of course, we are going to fight for Hillary. We’ve already begun!”

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