Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Unfortunately, this holiday has gone the way of President’s Day, Columbus Day, and even Veteran’s Day, into a plethora of Sales and Shopping at the Mall Days. Up until recently, we used this day to commemorate the man and his legacy. Now, enjoy the sales while supplies last during this holiday weekend.
But what of the man himself? How much do we know about him? We see him today, a 45-year-old wavering black and white image on our TV screens, and we hear his voice soaring in his “I Have a Dream” speech. What else can be said of the man whom we celebrate?
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Baptist minister who rose to prominence during the year-long boycott of the city bus service in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. On August 28, 1963, he led a crowd of 250,000 protesters in “The March on Washington.” A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At 35, he was its youngest recipient.
King’s insistence on nonviolent activism polarized the nation’s blacks during the mid-60’s, when young, urban African-Americans chose a more radical style in which to protest their frustrations and anger.
King was assassinated on April 4, 1968. It plunged the nation into shock, which reverberated just 2 months later with the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Following that was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, during which large numbers of students were clubbed by police in front of TV cameras, that broadcast the bloody chaos on the nightly network news.
During this time, my mother was becoming more deeply involved with both wine and George Wallace, who was an independent candidate for president that year. Her 1963 Ming Green Thunderbird was plastered with “Wallace for President 1968” stickers on the bumpers and all the windows. Wallace, a former Governor of Alabama, had stoutly protested the integration of schools in his state. He was considered a racist by liberals of that time. This was in keeping with Mother’s politics. Nevertheless, when she got drunk at night she’d say, “I don’t blame those kids in Chicago. The police are terrible, what they’re doing. The kids today…the kids today…” and then she’d spin around and fall face down on the sofa bed, unconscious until the next day.
But she had no sympathy for King. When I told her that he seemed to have some good ideas, and was respected by people that I respected, she said shrilly, “He’s a Communist!” That was her standard response to any minority who wanted any kind of equality. In Mother’s mind, integration of schools via busing was a Communist conspiracy destined to ruin our society, and make respectable, middle-class white neighborhoods slums.
It took great courage on behalf of African-Americans to move into a white neighborhood then. (And it ain’t a cakewalk now.) I recall in the mid-70’s my aunt and uncle whispering about a black doctor who had moved in a couple blocks down the street from them.
“I saw them barbecuing on their lawn,” my aunt said in hushed tones. “They seem like perfectly normal people.” Hard to believe this was a liberal talking. But that was open-minded thinking in those days.
Back when I lived in Queens, New York, in the late 1980’s, I volunteered at a library once a week, helping a man from the Caribbean learn how to read and write English. I would take the F train all the way out to Jamaica after work, stopping at a Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. I was always the only white person in the restaurant. I was the only white person walking down the streets. I have also been the only white person on a bus. My experience with being a minority had a profound effect on me. I was extremely self-conscious, defensive, and uncomfortable, to put it mildly. However, in all those situations, I never once saw anyone even look at me. Nobody whispered behind my back that I was aware of. Nobody said anything derogatory to me. It was as if I simply didn’t exist. This didn’t exactly increase my comfort level. Being different from everyone else around you isn’t fun. And being in that situation on a continuing basis throughout one’s life is hard for me to imagine. The fact that I am white is something I never think about, unless I am in a situation where I am in the minority. But I have never once in my life experienced open prejudice due to the color of my skin. It is such a basic element of my being, like having blue eyes or blonde hair, that I simply take it for granted.
Dr. King had a dream. He spoke of seeing the Promised Land. Have we arrived there yet? I don’t think so. But the neighborhood is changing. There is still a glass ceiling that stops minorities from assuming roles of leadership and authority in a majority of cases. But some are trickling through. There are more interracial relationships today, leading to more children of mixed race. Our nation been called a great melting pot. The ingredients of that pot are melting even more now, creating shades of grey that never existed before. Those shades of grey, as they multiply, will become harder and harder to discriminate against. And maybe one day, we will have arrived at Dr. King’s Promised Land.