By Robert Mann
My daughter wouldn’t stop talking about a new friend at her elementary school, so my wife and the child’s mother arranged a play date at our house. I’ll never forget the moment when my daughter’s friend appeared and I realized that she had not mentioned something that would’ve never gone unspoken during my childhood.
Her friend, you see, is black.
Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of the day when his children would be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” my daughter was doing just that. It’s not that she didn’t see her friend’s race. It’s that it mattered so little that she thought it unnecessary to mention it. She’s living Dr. King’s dream. She chooses friends based on character, not skin color.
After reminding my now-teenage daughter about this the other day, I began reflecting on my own upbringing in southeast Texas in the 1960s. My parents were not politically liberal, but on matters of race they were as tolerant as anyone I knew.
I will never forget the sight of my mother scolding our minister one Sunday morning after he had embarrassed a black woman who visited our church. Before his sermon, the minister told the congregation that she was among us only because her car had broken down. The implicit message was, “Don’t worry, she won’t be back.”
Nor will I will forget the lightning that crashed around us as my father – a lay preacher, who would later become a full-time minister – drove the family to Thursday night Bible study at his church in Beaumont, Texas, on April 4, 1968. My dad’s congregation was a small black church that had lost its preacher. My father volunteered to serve them. As we made our way to church that evening, my parents learned on the car radio that King had been shot in Memphis. Concerned about unrest in the church’s neighborhood, dad turned the car around.
While my parents were not politically liberal – and even supported George Wallace for president in 1968 — I cannot remember a time either of them spoke disparagingly about black people. In fact, in our home, the N-word was the worst kind of profanity.
As enlightened as my childhood was on race, however, I now realize that something profound was missing. Throughout elementary school, I had no black friends, as there were no black children who attended my all-white public school. It wasn’t that my parents or I rejected the possibility of blacks as friends; it was that segregated society mostly rejected that possibility for me.
I was only five years old when King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and uttered his famous words. At the time, I was blissfully unaware of the oppression and indignities suffered daily by so many blacks. In the 1960s, you could blame it on youth and ignorance.
But what about in my 20s or my 30s or, even now, in my mid-50s?
Sure, I like to think I’m enlightened, tolerant, and open-minded. But how much has really changed? Most of my friends are white. My church, while it has a few black members, is almost all white. The student body at my workplace – Louisiana State University – is mostly white; just up the road is a mostly black Southern University.
In other words, our society is still badly segregated, only now, largely by choice.
That brings me, finally, to the words of King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, which I’ve been reading as the speech’s 50th anniversary approaches.
While many will focus on the speech’s most famous lines about King’s dreams, I’m drawn, instead, to the speech’s dramatic ending, which has profound resonance for me — a white southern child of the 1960s.
As you may recall, King dramatically closed his speech with the famous litany, “Let freedom ring,” noting that true freedom would “speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jew and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’”
King’s message was as profound and true today as it was then: none of us is truly free as long as we are estranged, segregated, or unwilling to join hands.
As compelling as it may be to say King simply dreamed of a day when his children’s skin color wouldn’t matter, I believe his true dream, fully realized, is really far more profound and challenging.
In a sermon at the National Cathedral less than a week before he died, King spoke about our interconnectedness. “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” he said “And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”
That is the essence, I believe, of what King was trying to tell us on the warm August afternoon fifty years ago.
We’re not truly free when we just stop judging people by their skin color; we’re free only when we recognize and embrace each other as brothers and sisters.
- Ronald Reagan: Martin Luther King had It Coming (crooksandliars.com)
- Martin Luther King, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (usapartisan.com)
- Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” Speech (c-span.org)
- Dana Milbank: Black Republicans try to appropriate Martin Luther King – The Washington Post (plantsmantx.newsvine.com)
- Martin Luther King Jr. honored at church (wwlp.com)