MLK Day–Celebrating a movement, not a man

I was only three years old when James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.  The first five years of my life were spent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a literal melting pot of color and ethnicity.  I was only a generation removed from European immigrants.  As a result, you would think that my family would have risen above closed-minded prejudice. 

Not exactly. 

The story isn’t pretty, but I am not afraid to tell it.  Every closet has skeletons.  Every family tree has rotten fruit.  I was probably five years old.  Living in a large apartment complex (I distinctly remember four large apartment buildings, all facing each other), I played with the children who were outside at the time.  One day I was playing with a friend when my mother informed me that I had been invited to my grandparents’ home (they lived in an apartment nearby).  Grandma Wehse had made cookies!  I was excited!  My grandmother made awesome cookies!  I wanted some and I wanted my friend to have some, too.  That’s when I first learned about the ugly truth of prejudice.  As delicately as she could, my mom told me that I could not invite my friend to accompany me to Grandpa and Grandma’s because she was black.  I remember shooting back with the “Huh?!” face.  Mom agreed with me.  I was confused:  “What does the color of her skin have to do with cookies?”  It did not make a difference in our play! 

Adults must be a lot smarter than kids. 

“I have a dream that my four 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.”

You know those words.  They are taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech.  The speech began with these words, “I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” If that particular rally on the mall in Washington was not “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation,” it is surely on the list of transformational events.  Dr. King’s speech was used by the God of history to further fuel the passive-resistance movement gaining great momentum in our country. 

Today I celebrate that social movement which radically changed our nation, whose vibrations would eventually reach apartheid-ravaged South Africa.  Martin Luther King, Jr. was an imperfect man–a sinner like the rest of us.  But today is not the appropriate context to highlight his failings.  Rather, allow me to echo his desire that we all be judged by “the content of our character.”  In other words, who we are should trump what we look like.  My friend in Milwaukee was my friend because she was my friend.  It was that simple.  I knew she was black.  I wasn’t blind.  But I didn’t care.  She didn’t care I was white. 

Isn’t that how it should be? 

Sometimes adults are not a lot smarter than kids.


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