So many of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words strike a chord today. But if the great Civil Rights icon is remembered for anything during this holiday weekend dedicated to his legacy, it should be his message that good echoes in the hearts of all people and will ultimately drown out the siren songs of hatred and division. “There is amazing power in unity,” King once said. “Where there is true unity, every effort to disunite only serves to strengthen.”
Though he lived with injustice and state-sanctioned violence that most modern-day Americans cannot fathom, King always spoke with great optimism, setting forth a vision for future for generations. “Doors of opportunity are gradually opening now that were not open to our mothers and fathers,” he said, “The great challenge is to prepare ourselves to enter those doors as they open. …Our children must be taught to stand tall with their heads proudly lifted.”
No one in golf embodies the realization of Dr. King’s dream more than Mariah Stackhouse. The fifth-year LPGA Tour player and Stanford graduate was born 26 years after that horrible night in Memphis when James Earl Ray shot and killed Dr. King. Stackhouse has lived 26 more years since. But 52 years after his death, King’s legacy lives through Stackhouse and others like her who continue to kick doors open.
“From the beginning, my parents always made me aware of golf’s racial history and the history of America in general,” Stackhouse said when asked to reflect on growing up as a Black female golfer in 21st century America. “I know about where we have been and where we are now,” she said. “And I’m able to appreciate the opportunities that I have and the different experiences that I have in a very positive way compared to what my parents had.
“With respect to golf, learning about Renee Powell, Charlie Sifford and all the legends of Black golf history who led the way for us by competing on the professional golf circuits – learning about their bravery to travel across the country and compete in places and at clubs that, at the time, didn’t welcome them; learning about them traveling through places where it was dangerous for a lone Black person to be; learning about the passion they had to break those barriers and make these Tours a very welcome place for the Black golfers who came behind them – it’s incredibly inspiring for me now in 2021 to recognize that I don’t have those same overt battles to fight,” she said. “For that I am incredibly grateful.”
Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta and another civil rights icon who was standing next to Dr. King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when he was assassinated, once said, “Martin had the ability to make us feel as though we were more than our daily selves, more than we had been – a part of a beautiful and glamorous vision that was enabling us to transcend ourselves. It was a marvelous quality he had, not ever fully captured on the printed page or in recordings, to lift people to another place so that they could almost feel themselves moving.”
“When you think about the history of golf on MLK Day and think about his vision for America, the speeches he gave, the marches he led, the meetings he held with various leaders, pushing that fight for equality and opportunity regardless of the color of your skin, it’s amazing where we are compared to where we were,” Stackhouse said. “There might still be barriers in sports and in golf – economic, social and other reasons – but the color of your skin is no longer one. That is thanks to the legends and the fighters who came before us.”
Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech long ago surpassed Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the most memorized and recited speech by school children. But the eloquence of his sermons should not be overlooked. From the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, he often spoke with jarring simplicity.
“Segregation is a sin,” he said, cutting right to the heart of human failing. “It is morally wrong. But whenever you set out to build a temple, you must face the fact that there is a tension at the heart of the universe between good and evil. And as we struggle to defeat the forces of evil, the God of the universe struggles with us.”
“The beauty of his perspective was being able to meet everyone at the source of their beliefs and being able to point out their cognitive dissonance,” Stackhouse said. “Instead of accepting the status quo, he pointed out that people’s beliefs didn’t match their daily actions. And he showed them what they could do to change that. That was one of his powers.”
Stackhouse lives about 15 minutes from the church were King stirred the hearts of his congregants. And her alma mater, Stanford, is home to The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. But it is through Stackhouse’s presence – through her grace, her charm, her optimism, her actions and her smile – that the message of Dr. King resonates inside and outside the gallery ropes of our game.
“It’s hard to say where the next generation will be,” Stackhouse said. “History unfolds at its own pace. As for now, my generation, the relationships we have with one another are very healthy. We don’t have as many of those bad experiences to work through. We are at a place now where we are very connected in our attitudes about racial equality. And the next generation is growing up in conversation with one another. That’s certainly positive. In golf, which is my area, we are in a good place.”