January 15th was the birthday of the late Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) – Baptist minister, civil rights leader, Nobel Peace Prize recipient. In Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, he said he dreamed that one day people would not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. That day is not here yet. Headlines still echo the theme of America: racism, racism, racism. Barack Obama is a glaring example of how the color of one’s skin is emphasized.
“Since we live in a changing universe, why do men oppose change? If a rock is in the way, the root of a tree will change its direction.” – Melvin Tolson (1900-1966), African-American poet and educator.
I spent last Thanksgiving in South Carolina at the house of one of my sisters. My oldest sister, who is in her 80s, also came for the holiday, taking Amtrak from New Jersey to Charlotte, N.C., the closest Amtrak station. When we took our oldest sister to Amtrak to return home, we went into the station with her to make sure she got on the train okay. I had made arrangements for her to have a wheelchair or be driven to the train via cart.
This didn’t happen. The man at the entrance to the ramp going to the trains wouldn’t let us escort our sister to the train because we weren’t passengers; he would not get a wheelchair for her or drive her to the train.
Fortunately, there was a push-cart nearby, on which we put our sister’s luggage and watched her totter down the ramp. I was mad as #*&+.
A white woman in her late 20s arrived at the entrance with her mother. She had a large piece of luggage on wheels. The gatekeeper (with all the racial connotations that go along with this term) loaded her suitcase onto the motorized cart and drove her and her luggage to the train. I thought my head would explode as I loudly pointed out this discrepancy in treatment. I loudly accosted the gatekeeper about this when he returned. How could he let an 80-year-old person totter down the ramp alone but give a young person a ride?
The gatekeeper came up with several excuses for his behavior, which I quickly attacked, but then offered the most revealing and most accurate reason for his behavior by asking: “Do y’all live here?”
My anger rapidly changed into pity. This was a black man in the south, and in spite of the (mythological?) progress that has been made, Dr. King’s dream was not here yet. The color of one’s skin is still the determining factor in how one is treated.
“Even the smallest victory is never to be taken for granted. Each victory must be applauded, because it is so easy not to battle at all, to just accept and call that acceptance inevitable.” – Audre Lorde (1934-1992), African-American poet and writer.
One Saturday late afternoon, prior to my trip to the South, I was walking down Main Street here in Evanston when I observed a bicycle on its side with a man sprawled on his back in a shop doorway across from the bike.
I assumed there had been a mishap. I stopped and asked the man if he was all right. He responded with something that I know my body heard because my stomach dropped, but it did not yet register in my brain. I asked again, “Are you all right?”
The man repeated what he had said. This time my brain clearly heard what the man said, which was: “I don’t like ni—rs.” I looked down at this little white man, then looked down the street to see if the large black man who had passed me was still in sight. He wasn’t.
I looked down at this little man again and contemplated the possibility of lifting my 200 pounds high enough above him to let the physics of my mass and velocity impact his body.
“Don’t hate – it’s too big a burden to bear.” – Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. (1899-1984). I thought about going to jail for my actions and that this little man had to be crazy to say something like this to me while stretched out in such a vulnerable position. I moved away from the crumb and continued on my way but thought about whom I could call if the crumb was still there when I returned.
Will Dr. King’s dream of a society in which color doesn’t matter ever be more than a dream? I doubt it. It’s certainly not here yet.