Honoring Dr. King

19 Jan

EDITOR’s NOTE:  I wrote and published this article a couple of years ago while blogging under a pseudonym.  It’s still appropriate today, and I post the updated version here:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
August 28, 1963

Some 45 years ago, famed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered those words in an historic address from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Just five years later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis Tennessee.  President Carter posthumously awarded Dr. King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  President Reagan signed into law the designation of the third Monday of January as Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Tomorrow, some of those who stood with Dr. King that day at the Lincoln Memorial as well as those who marched with him in Selma, Alabama, will stand with Barack Obama as he becomes the nation’s 44th President, and the first President of African American descent.

For those who once had difficulty voting, who couldn’t attend the local public school, who couldn’t drink from the same water fountain, we cannot deny the significance of this event.  Regardless of what you think of Barack Obama’s politics, this is an historic milestone in our nation’s history.  And one we can all celebrate.

Much has been written and discussed about Dr. King’s work and his legacy. I wonder, what would he think of his movement today? Would he believe that the dream has been realized? That it’s still even possible?  I think with the Inauguration of President Obama, he’d be happy to think we were closer.

When I first wrote this article, I asked the questions because of something I saw while getting a drink at the gym and I saw a flyer for an event in celebration of MLK Day. Ironically, I overheard a discussion about this year’s event last week at the gym. The event was listed as An “All Black Gala.” Now, to be fair in small print under the title were the words indicating that the attire was to be all black.  But are we fooling ourselves to think that’s all it meant?

And, am I fooling myself to think that I, a southern white male and legitimate son of the Confederacy (small “c” I’ve never joined the group) have any right in even discussing this issue?

I started school in 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed and the year schools were finally desegregated in my home county in rural southwest Virginia. At six, I didn’t realize it was a big deal. It was mentioned briefly on my way to school the first day. The only other time I remember it being mentioned was the day my first grade teacher, an older unmarried lady who had dedicated her life to teaching, said to the class “I can read Little Black Sambo to you today because Robert isn’t here.

I remember hearing stories of black vs. white tension at the high school, but that was virtually nonexistent by the time I got there.

Then my junior year my family decided to move across town. We sold our home to an African American family. Our God-fearing Christian Democrat neighbors across the street were furious. And I never was really sure what my parents thought about that. But I got a chuckle out of it, and they seemed to accept it, when an African American family moved in next door to our new house.

Going to a conservative private college, I really wasn’t challenged with racial issues for those four years. After that I moved back home to southwest Virginia. So, I wasn’t really confronted with racial issues again until I moved to the D.C. area in the mid 1980s.

My wife and I found ourselves in an interdenominational church that very much wanted to be diverse. But our problem was that the majority of us were urban white professionals. We were actually in the minority of that congregation because we weren’t at the time pursuing graduate degrees. The church did have a couple of really good outreach programs, including an after school tutoring program with which I became involved. But we never quite found the answer to bring our neighbors into our church community. Part of that was that there were already well established Black churches there in the neighborhood. But part of it was that we just didn’t do a good job of relating on a cultural level.

One of the most difficult times during the church live while we were there was in the search for a new pastor. There were two factions. One wanted the man God had called to the church, while the other agreed with that sentiment, they also wanted it to be a person of color. There were some pretty tense moments in business meetings.

Near the end of the selection process, we were discussing a particular candidate. An African American member relayed a conversation she had with the candidate and eloquently explained why she felt certain remarks were racist. Then a white gentleman just as eloquently explained why the remarks were not racist.  The issue wasn’t resolved there. In fact, healing on that particular issue didn’t come for months.

But what hit me in that business meeting was that, it didn’t matter what I as a southern white male thought about what this minister had said. It didn’t matter that I didn’t think he said anything racist. What mattered was that my sister in Christ, because of her background and because of her experiences did think it was racist.

I realized that it mattered less what the actual statement was and more how we all perceived it. I realized that our issues were more about communications than about actual attitudes.

That realization was reinforced in a couple of ways.

For several weeks following surgery for cancer, I would take the Metro every day to George Washington Hospital for radiation treatments. One day I noticed a sign that said “D.C. Statehood Now, End Racism”

I said to myself, “that’s not racist.” But I got an immediate check in my conscience that said, “Oh yes it is.”

And I thought about it. What reason did I have to not want D.C. to have representation in Congress? I realized it was because I didn’t want them to have more votes.

Them? Ouch, that was an ugly thought I didn’t expect to rear its head. Just what did I mean by “them?”

Now, I have to admit that, as a conservative, the last thing I want is two more Democrat Senators and another Democrat Congressman. If I had my druthers we’d fold the District into Maryland.

But try as I might, I can’t find a legitimate reason to deny the citizens of the District of Columbia equal representation under the law.

It wasn’t long after both of those experiences that I had what I consider an opportunity of a lifetime. I auditioned for and was selected to be a part of the “Gentlemen of the Gospel Mass Choir.” It was an incredible experience. One hundred and fifty male voices raised in song. I was one of two white guys.

We performed that year at the Kennedy Center on the Sunday before MLK, Jr. Day. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was the Master of Ceremonies.

My wife tells the story of sitting next to an elderly couple in the audience. The gentleman tried to point out his son,”fourth row from the top, eight in from the right.

My wife’s response? “My husband is the white guy on the back row.”

I learned a lot through that experience. About different styles of music and once again about different ways of looking at things.

We were excited about bringing our son up in a diverse environment. We were determined that he would not be saddled with the same attitudes that prevailed in our youth and in our families.

So, we had some concerns when we moved to suburban Richmond. We chose outside the City because of the school system. That’s fodder for another day. But I was concerned about our son moving into a predominantly white environment.

I realized we must have been doing something right however by the time we got to his next birthday. We’d lived here almost a year. I wasn’t really thinking about it at the time, but I looked at the kids lined up for cake at his birthday party. We had our son the average white kid, a girl, an Hispanic, an African American, and Egyptian and a deaf child. We didn’t plan any of that. These were his friends.

Of course I did have to admit some concerns about his education the day he came home from kindergarten and said “The South Americans killed Abraham Lincoln.” We had to work on history a bit.

I had some high expectations for Promise Keepers when the movement first began. There was a strong emphasis on racial reconciliation. I remember being at a rally in RFK Stadium and hearing Wellington Boone say “If God is your father, then I am your brother.” Sadly, from what I’ve seen Promise Keepers never really grew up. They still seem to exist only on the surface. I think it’s a shame, because I believe they could have been so much more.

Over the past few years, I was involved with the alumni association at my college, the small private school mentioned above. We’d been struggling with the whole issue of racial, ethnic and gender equality and what that means for us as Christians. We’ve made some progress, but we have a long way to go.

I remember one meeting when a fellow Board member, an African American woman who graduated two years behind me asked me a question, “How come you get it? What’s the difference?”

I told her I wasn’t sure that I always did get it. I acknowledged that I had a lot to learn. There’s a part of me that knows what is right. And I struggled to make that my natural response.

I’m not there yet. And I think by the example of the promotion for the “All Black Gala” I’m not the only one.

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3 Responses to “Honoring Dr. King”

  1. Jason Roop January 19, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    Here’s something you might enjoy. Richmond poet and civil rights figure LaVerne Byrd Smith reads a poem she wrote the day Martin Luther King Jr. died:

    http://www.tinyurl.com/StyleLaverneSmith0209

  2. Michael January 19, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

    Thanks for sharing that Jason.

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