Dr. King and Ms. Rosser

By Michael Humphrey

When I turned on the radio in my rental car soon after landing in Memphis last month, the station was playing Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 3, 1968 speech, “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop.” My goodness, I thought, do they have a radio station that just plays this speech, his last, the night before he was gunned down in Memphis?

No, as it turns out, the public radio station was playing the speech in full that morning, but for no obvious reason. MLK Day was two weeks ago. Black History Month was two days later. It didn’t matter why they were playing it. I listened as I drove through the city that would serve as an unfortunate setting of America’s sad history.

But I wasn’t in Memphis to think about the past. National Catholic Reporter had sent me there to report on the Jubilee Schools, a revival of Catholic parochial schools in Memphis’ inner city. Buildings once closed by the diocese were now being reopened, thanks to the vision of Bishop J. Terry Steib and the school Superintendent Dr. Mary C. McDonald. The schools enroll only 19 percent Catholic students, serve over 80 percent African Americans and will never turn away a student because of the parent’s inability to pay tuition.

I spent three days sitting in classrooms, talking to teachers, students, administrators, donors, parish priests, parents, grandparents and by Friday night I could tell my iffy back was paying a price. By Saturday morning I lay in my hotel room nearly immobile. But the day before I had promised one of the student’s parents, Ms. Rosser, that I would be at her house at 11 a.m. Saturday morning to interview her and her daughter and take some pictures.

“You want to come to my home?” she asked, a little incredulous. But then she surprised me with what she said next. “I would be honored.”

So on that Feb. 2 morning, I rose from my bed and held the wall so I could get to the shower. It took me an hour to dress and I left my hotel room slightly bent forward and limping. I drove first to the drug store, where I bought pain medicine. I hobbled back to the car and drove 30 minutes to her home.

Those thirty minutes were excruciating, but they are now forgotten because of what came next. When I rose out of the car, my back seized so violently that I had to hold onto the roof not to fall. It relented just enough to let me scoot over to shut the door. Then I shimmied along the car until I was situated at the trunk. That’s when the next spasm left me helpless.

My cell phone rang. It was Ms. Rosser.

“Mr. Humphrey,” she said, “are you still planning to come over to my house?”

“Oh,” I replied, “I’m here, I’m outside. I just can’t move.”

“What?” she said.

“Yeah, my back has gone out,” I said. “I can’t get to your door.”

Ms. Rosser came out to assess my dilemma. And in a sense I was there to assess hers. She was a single mother of a 10-year-old daughter. She also was the sole caretaker of her father, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago. They lived in his home of 40 years. Last fall, she took a part-time job at her daughter’s school as a cook, trying to make ends meet. But she said it was hard. Her daughter couldn’t play in her own yard because of the danger. She was just thankful to have the Jubilee Schools, because at least her daughter was safe.

My dilemma was how to get into her house and she offered two solutions.

“My daddy has a cane and he has a walker,” Ms. Rosser said. “Which one do you want?”

I am 39 years old, which is not old enough to swallow my pride.

“Let’s try the cane,” I said. And off she went to get it.

I leaned heavy on the metal cane with four knobby feet covered in duct tape. Ms. Rosser held my elbow as we walked up to her door. When we entered her home, she closed the door and she looked at me seriously.

“I’m not a Catholic,” she said, “I’m a Pentecostal. And Mr. Humphrey, would you mind if I touched you.”

“Not at all,” I said.

She sidled next to me, laid her left hand directly where the pain was, as if it glowed. She rubbed my back and she began to pray.

“Lord Jesus, heal Mr. Humphrey!” she prayed. “Heal him, Lord, take away this pain.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., in that last speech, spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan. He wondered out loud why the priest and Levite did not stop to help the beaten man on the side of the road to Jericho. He supposed it might be fear.

He said: “And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’”

Ms. Rosser asked if I felt any better. And sadly I did not. But I excused the whole incident by saying, “I haven’t had any problems with my back for five years.”

“Well,” she said. “Memphis can be unlucky. Just think what happened to Dr. King.”

I tried to straighten up and look at her. I asked, “Do you remember that day?”

“Yes,” she said. “All I could remember thinking was, ‘What for? What did he do to anybody?’”

“He was a man of peace,” I said.

“He was,” she agreed. And then she helped me to her living room while her father screamed out random words and her daughter watched television.

“Why did you want to come here, Mr. Humphrey?” she asked.

“I wanted to understand,” I answered honestly. “I wanted to understand what parents like you are going through and how the school is helping.”

But it was clear by then that I was here for a much larger reason.

African American history is important to all of us. The women and men who helped lead the United States out of the wilderness of slavery and legal segregation must be remembered for their courage and wisdom.

But right now Ms. Rosser is even more important, I contend. She is the one living today, the one I can assure you, would ask, “If I do not help this man, what will happen to him?”

When I left 45 minutes later, I was feeling better. I could straighten up, I had my interview and pictures. All the same, Ms. Rosser said, “I want you to take this cane. My daddy doesn’t need it anymore. Just throw it away when you don’t need it anymore.”

But I brought it back to Kansas City. I will always need it.

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