I have been listening to speeches and remembrances of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio and television today, also reading tributes in major newspapers. I know several musicians who are doing performances today–ones I wish I could have attended.
On this day, I always remember the day after he was assassinated. I was a student at the University of Tennessee. Hazel was the Black maid who cleaned our dorm. She was a tiny, frail lady who asked me every day how I could possibly be going to school so far away from my mama. She didn’t know how many times every day I asked myself the same question.
Hazel was diligent at keeping our dorm clean. She was also the one we called whenever any huge bugs (like the major cockroaches we called “Hueys”) came around. Hazel chased them around with her broom until she pummeled them. Those of us who lived in the dorm were grateful for her superpower.
When Hazel showed up for work the day after MLK Jr. was killed, it was obvious that she’d been crying. Her bloodshot eyes could be seen from all the way down the hall. She was listlessly leaning on her broom, almost paralyzed. My roommate and I knew that our dorm director, old Miz Mize, would have her fired if she thought Hazel was not doing her job. We invited her into our room, asked her to sit down and tell us what was wrong. She said something to the effect of, “He was our only hope, us poor people, to get out of poverty.” We gave her a cold washcloth for her eyes.
My roommate and I had an idea: What if we swept and mopped the hallway and let Hazel sit in our room for a while? Old Miz Mize usually stayed in her room unless she was on one of her missions. We snuck out with the broom and swept the hallway. We weren’t anywhere nearly as efficient as Hazel was. We were even less efficient with the mop and bucket. We did the best we could and got it done just before old Miz Mize showed up on the floor. Hazel was picking up the broom, mop and bucket and leaving our floor.
“Mornin’, Miz Mize,” she said.
“Humph,” Miz Mize responded. “Are you finished here, Hazel?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Hazel always had her eyes looking down at the floor when Miz Mize addressed her.
“Good. I wouldn’t want you to be wasting time here, what with all the fuss going on about that King guy.”
My roommate and I looked out the door and watched as Hazel shook her head and left. The next day, we gave her a couple of candy bars because we couldn’t find any flowers for her. She hugged us both and said she was sure our mamas were proud of us, no matter how far away they lived.
I always think of Hazel on this day and on the anniversary of the assassination. She was a gem of a woman who was never appreciated by old Miz Mize who ran our dorm and who called me out often for hanging out with “communists” because I liked folk music. I picture Hazel in heaven, sitting next to MLK, Jr., having a nice conversation on his birthday.