Have We Forgotten Everything Martin Luther King Jr. Taught Us?

I got really sad yesterday. Really sad. Writing about politics is never really uplifting, but I don’t like false narratives, and I feel compelled to fight against them. Sometimes I get excited, frustrated, disappointed, or furious. But I rarely get sad. But I was sad.

This is why.

I was 8 years old in Jackson, Mississippi when we integrated the schools for the first time. I remember lining up for lunch. The black kids on one side and the white kids on the other. Not because of our race, but because of our meal tickets. They had yellow ones. I remember that clearly. Theirs were free. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I was just a kid. But now I imagine how they must have felt. Looking at these white kids for the first time, and knowing that we knew they couldn’t pay for their lunch. I hope whoever thought of that genius idea didn’t get far in the education system.

I remember a field trip in 4th grade. Moms drove. If your Mom was driving you could ask one person to be in the car with you, but the rest were assigned. My Mom was driving and I asked Jenny. Jenny was black. I remember the look on the teacher’s face. I remember the buzz between the teachers. But I didn’t really understand.

I remember the public swimming pool near our house when I was a kid. I never thought about the fact that no black kids swam there until years later when I learned it was because they weren’t allowed. I was 15 years old and we had moved out of that neighborhood. I drove over to that pool that day (yes, you could drive at 15 then). I pulled up to the pool. I’m not sure what I thought I was going to do if it still enforced that rule, but I could see the pool from my car, and there were white and black kids swimming. I smiled and went home.

In the 9th grade I decided that our 9th grade dance shouldn’t be in a smelly old gym, and I organized a dance at our country club. When the country club told my Mom that blacks weren’t allowed she said, “I don’t think you want me to tell my daughter that.” Luckily my Dad was a Senator then and had influence. I’m not sure what he told them or what he did, but they didn’t object after that. Everyone came.

In high school I went to a formerly all black high school. It was a rough school. But I learned a lot. I learned how different life was for a black girl than it was for me. But I saw changes. Lots of changes. Doors had opened and blacks were flowing through them.

You guys have heard the story before here. My best friend in 5th grade was black, and we never played at each other’s house. It just wasn’t done. But we talked on the phone for hours. When I had a daughter I was determined that wouldn’t be the case. I sent my kids to a diverse Catholic school near the city instead of the white surburban school near us. I bought my daughter the different colors of Barbie as soon as they came out. None of my children ever gave a second thought to having friends of color over. I watched as blacks all around me became Supreme Court Judges, Secretary of State, Senators, and anything else they wanted to be.

So many things changed since I was a child. So many wrongs made right. I taught my children to truly understand what Martin Luther King Jr meant when he said we should not judge people by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

Yesterday I read in the news enough racebaiting, slurs, namecalling, and judging of people to make me think I was back in the 60’s. Sadness overwhelmed me. Did we learn anything at all from MLK? Anything? Did we listen?

Go back and read all of MLK’s speeches. Not just the “I have a dream speech,” but all of them. They speak to us. We need to hear them today. What he spoke of, dreamed of, and wanted, is not what we are today. He would be thrilled with the progress, but not with us. Not with us.

I may disagree with Pres. Obama on just about every issue, but it was historic that a black man became President in my lifetime. If you had asked me in the 70’s if I thought that possible, I would have laughed. I handed out voter registration cards in 1974 to hundreds of blacks at the courthouse in Jackson Mississippi who were registrating for the first time in their lives. If I told them that a black man would be President in 2009, they would have laughed too. It didn’t seem possible. But it was possible. It did happen.

So why are we still so divided? Why does the conversation turn so ugly when it comes to race? We’ve come so far, but it sure doesn’t seem that way sometimes. It sure didn’t seem that way yesterday.

Once in high school I dropped off a black friend of mine at her house. It wasn’t much of a house. It was a shack. A terrible place to have to live. I sat in the car long after she had gone in. I was wondering how any of this could change. How could we change these lives? How could we make a better life for everyone? I was overwhelmed with sadness because it seemed impossible to fix.

That’s how I felt yesterday.

Maybe we can remember this quote from MLK, and put away our sterotypes, our anger, and false accusations.

Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

He still speaks to us today, but we aren’t listening.

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