Reflections on Martin Luther King Day

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To this day, I honor the memory of Azadi.

This is probably not a popular opinion — especially these days — but I grew up with a sense of duty to my black brothers and sisters. I felt obligated to make amends for the evils my forefathers visited upon them.

I make no apologies for it.

In 1973, I reached across the Cuyahoga River, a symbolic divide in a segregated Cleveland. Responding to an article in the Muntu Drum, a black-oriented student newspaper published at Cuyahoga Community College’s Metro Campus, I sought out an East Cleveland woman who called herself Azadi.

The article said Azadi was running a busing program, taking families and loved ones of prison inmates to visit them. The program was based on mutual respect and self-respect. If you couldn’t afford the meager fare, you could pay your way by volunteering your services to the program. That could be in the form of washing vans, helping with paperwork, running errands, whatever. The article also mentioned that Azadi desperately needed drivers. I found my calling.

For the next 14 years, until I moved to Columbus, I served as a volunteer driver. Those duties were later expanded to fleet maintenance and – at times – Azadi’s chauffeur. Azadi suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually claimed her life. Still, she managed to run the program, earn a college degree and inspire a lot of us to serve our community. In the early ’80s, I drove her to classes at Cleveland State University, literally carrying her at times from the van to her wheelchair or into and out of her East Cleveland apartment.

The motto of the People’s Busing Program was “Keeping Families Together.” The idea being that, if prison inmates could maintain contact with loved ones, they would be less likely to re-offend after being released.

That philosophy wasn’t limited to inmates; it helped keep my family together. My late father, who had instilled in me the values of fair play and respect, later joined me as a volunteer driver. The time spent together driving the inmates’ wives, mothers, and children to visit them at Ohio prisons strengthened our bond.

My dad and I also became a part of Azadi’s family joining them for social functions and, finally, in mourning her.