Monday, January 21, 2013

How Martin Luther King, Jr. Taught Me the Truth

I grew up in the 1950s-60s most of which was lived before the passage of the Civil Rights Act that stopped segregation of the races.  I grew up in a town in the South that was all white.  Our little town had no persons of color living there ever and at one time had a very active chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.  I am not proud of that distinction at all but it is part of the history of the town and I have to accept it because it was so.  Luckily, my family of origin did not promote racism.  In fact, my parents taught their children that all people were worthy of respect both by their words and their actions.  So, even thought I did not know any black people personally throughout my childhood, I always viewed others with an accepting feeling because I wanted everyone to get along and to live peacefully.

When I was very young, my mother would take us shopping with her when she went to the larger town nearby.  We would go to a shopping center where there was a department store named Newberrys.  My mother would shop there and we would tag along and explore.  On one shopping excursion, I was a drinking fountain with a sign over it that said, "Colored Water Fountain."  My young very literal imaginative mind pictured a fountain that would give out various colors of water....maybe blue, pink, orange...anyway, I asked my mother if I could go get a drink of water from that fountain and she pulled me back quickly and told me, "No!"  I said I was thirsty and she said she would find the fountain that I could drink from.  I said I wanted to drink from that fountain because I wanted to see all the colored water.  My mother must have looked strangely at me for saying this and she said in a very matter of fact way, "That water is not for you, it is for colored people.  The water is not colored, the people who drink it are."

Oh, so that was the meaning of the sign.  I did not even think it had to do with people being different colors.  I just wanted to try some water that was a different color than clear.  I guess I had always wondered if black people were just like white people or if they were different in different ways.  When we passed through neighborhoods where black people lived and I saw their dogs and cats, I always wondered if the animals were different because black people owned them.  Since I had no exposure to people of color, I had no one to ask the questions that I had in my childish mind.

Integration took the place of segregation in the mid-1960s and while other cities dealt with it and wrestled with how to accomplish school integration with busing and other plans, our little town did not think about it at all.  We were still an all white community and black people rarely stopped in our town, although we were right along an interstate highway.  I had been told that there once was a threatening sign along the old highway that existed before the interstate warning non-whites to keep driving but that sign had disappeared by the time our family had moved there in 1957.  The only thing I knew was that black people were afraid to come to our town even though we were just 8 miles from the larger town with a large black population.  Fear stood in the way of learning about other races.  The races did not mix because there were people who feared it and would prevent it from happening.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was shown on television many times during my early teenage life.  When he came on, my parents never called him bad names but just referred to him as a "trouble-maker."  I think they, along with many other white people of the era in the South, preferred for things to remain as they were, the status quo where whites lived separately from blacks and we were all happy about it, at least the whites were.  When Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, I and my friends from school really did not know what it meant to us or anyone else.  We had seen the race riots on television and the way that white people treated black people in Birmingham and Selma and Atlanta and other places in the Deep South.  We were so far removed from that part of life that it seems almost fictional to us.  We did not dream that his death would move people into action even more than his life did.

I graduated from my all white high school in 1970 and began attending the college in the larger town nearby. I was officially a "commuter student", going to school in the day and working at part time jobs in the afternoon and evenings.  I shared classes with black students and worked with black persons in my jobs, the first time I ever had any experiences of actually talking with black people as other human beings.  To my surprise, I found out that they were much like me in many ways.  They talked about their families and their goals for the future and current events.  They talked about school assignments and projects and wondered how they would ever finish all that they had to do.  They talked about being tired and sleepy and going out on dates.  Turned out, they were more like me than I had ever imagined.

When I was about to graduate from college and also was about to get married, my fiance and I invited a very dear black friend to attend our wedding.  She was in many of our college classes and we thought of her as a good friend.  I guess I did not think she would actually attend but the day of the wedding came and as I looked back at my bride coming down the aisle there was our black friend sitting in one of the pews of the church toward the back.  She had a huge grin on her face and congratulated us heartily when the wedding had ended.  She did not stay for the reception that followed, though, I think and I don't recall ever seeing her again.  She had stepped out to show her friendship for us by being the only black person sitting in a white church at our wedding.

Now, almost 40 years later, our country has inaugurated our President for his second term on the day we have set aside to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The dream that Dr. King had that one day we would have an America where black and white children could play together freely has been accomplished in many ways.  The idea that one day a person could become President of our nation and be non-white in race has happened.  Most people in our land are happy with the situation or at least recognize that our political system has worked in a peaceful way and brought this about.  There is a small segment of our country that continues to be racist and against anything that would open the door to change.  We will most likely always have that group in society.

I was talking to a friend today who said that he thinks most people do not see race when they see another person, that they just see the other for who he/she is with the characteristics they have.  I agree with him for the most part.  I have evolved into a person who tries to live in that way, coming from a small town with a heavy racist history but not latching on to that kind of thinking thanks to persons who taught me to love others regardless of their race.  I think that if we want to accomplish that as a goal of society, however, we have to continue to break down the barriers of hatred and prejudice and spread the message of love so that all will be accepted despite differences that may divide us.  I have to give some of the credit for this understanding to Dr. King.  I may not have ever met him and may not have been influenced by him or his message as others have been, but his work toward bringing about equality and justice for all in a land that proclaims itself as a land of freedom for all has broken down barriers that divided us for much too long.

I still wish there was a water fountain that sprayed out water that was colored the colors of the rainbow and that all persons could drink freely of it.  It would be the water of love and peace and joy that God intends for all persons to share.  It would not be marked for any one group to enjoy but it would flow like an everflowing stream as the justice and righteousness that Dr. King imagined would come one day for all.  That fountain would be one that would unite all persons to drink from it and would quench the thirst of all who long to see the world that Dr. King longed to see.

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