Monday the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument on the national mall in Washington DC was dedicated. I wish I had been there.
Growing up in New Mexico was an experience in extreme cultural interaction. We had an extremely varied cultural and ethnic society; a lot more varied than I realized at the time.
In elementary school, it never occurred to me that our school was integrated, or that such a thing was unusual in the early 1960s. That was the product of Brown v Board of Education, a decision made shortly before I was born. I thought nothing of the fact that my little WASP self was going to school every day with other little people of various color and different cultures. They were just kids to me. We played ball and climbed on the monkey bars, and learned our ABC’s. The best batter on my little league team was black, the best pitcher was Hispanic, I played second base and was just happy to be on the field. I can’t speak for the other kids, but I was oblivious.
One other fact which I failed to notice was that the town’s only swimming pool was lily white.
At the age of 11 or 12 and just beginning to read the newspaper, I was shocked to see a story about a protest at the local pool by black folks who wanted admission. I had never realized that they were not allowed. The private pool company initially resisted but shortly gave in, and suddenly, the deep end of the pool looked a lot like my grade school class – except that some of my white friends no longer went there.
It was an interesting time to grow up.
Some time in my middle school years, our lily white main-stream protestant church packed up all us kids and drove us across town to the all black protestant church for “race relations Sunday.” We sang songs and recited famous speeches from prominent Americans. It was there where I first hear about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his eloquence. Not just his “I have a Dream” speech, but other quotations from his writing floating around that social experiment.
I even got to read a copy of his “letter from the Birmingham jail.” It was shocking to me to find that a person could be jailed for protesting in America. That ran counter to the civics lessons that we were studying in civics class. What about liberty and justice for all? What about the bill of rights? It is typical of adolescents to cause problems, because they learn what they are taught and try to apply it – and sometimes that doesn’t match up with the real world.
As I grew to high school age, we were still expected to be in the church choir. My choir director made us learn “We Shall Overcome”, the preeminent hymn of the civil rights movement. When he was asked why a white choir would sing that song, he replied that we had a lot to overcome: prejudice and misunderstanding for example.
So maybe we didn’t sing it quite the same way that the black folks did, but singing that song made me think. It made me ponder about what I must overcome in my own life. Not external prejudice, but internal arrogance, not the misunderstandings of others, but my own misconceptions about the person next to me.
We are all better because of what Dr. King did; because of what he believed, because of what he said, and because of how he lived.
We still have a lot to overcome.