This place matters

This place matters

Monday, January 21, 2013

I Still Have a Dream

To say that the city where I went to elementary school was racist is an incredible understatement. The city of Euclid, Ohio was experiencing the first flickers of racial diversity and a lot of my white classmates (or more accurately, their parents) saw this as a direct threat. Some kids used the "N" word just to mean "black." The term was so ubiquitous in their homes that they didn't even realize it was a slur. I had a classmate who wasn't allowed to watch The Cosby Show because they weren't allowed to watch "them n-word shows." As some of my classmates' parents saw it, black people were creeping in and threatening every white person's peaceful suburban way of life. Oddly, the city seems just as racially diverse as anyplace else nowadays. I'm not sure if the racism has gone underground, if people have changed their hating ways. I know all that hate doesn't just dry up in a couple of decades, but I've got no idea where it went.
Anyway, I can remember some families at my school complaining one year that the students were given Martin Luther King day off and not Columbus day. MLK day, you see, was a racist holiday, meant only to put white people down and flagellate them for their racist past. 
I have to assume that the folks who said these things had never actually read a word that MLK had spoken, or at the very least hadn't listened to it. The legacy of Martin Luther King wasn't one of blame and guilt, it was one of love and unity. That crowd that marched on Washington wasn't an angry black mob meant to crush whitey - it was people of every color and faith joining hands and singing songs and inventing a more loving and peaceful world for their children. While race wars raged all around, King was the voice bringing us all together. He wasn't just reaching out to black people, and he certainly wasn't berating white people. He was sharing a vision for the America in which we live. 
In an address at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he said the following:
We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. 
The truly impressive thing is that he wrote those words while he was in jail for an act of peaceful civil disobedience. I cannot imagine how bitter I would feel in his shoes; how hateful and how hopeless. Hard as I try to be good and fair and magnanimous, I can't imagine thinking about forgiveness and love at a time like that.
And that was the message King was giving to us - to all of us. Not that white people are bad or deserving of contempt. His message was that "hate is too great a burden to bear." His message, as he put it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech:
Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love. 
Martin Luther King day is no more a "black" holiday than Presidents' Day or the 4th of July is "white." It's a holiday honoring a man who was, in many ways, a beautiful product of the America our founders dreamed of. And he called all of us, black, white, and in between to be the same.

1 comment:

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Beautifully said.

I wasn't aware of any racial discrimination when I was a kid (in Maryland) until my mother had a car wreck in 1958, and we were taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital. My mother had to be admitted, but the white section was full, so she had to be put into the black section. I kid you not. The difference between that part of the hospital, and the other section, where she was moved a couple days later, was mind-boggling. I went to school with blacks, was friends with many of them, and had absolutely no idea... until that eye-opening experience. It infuriated me.

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