“There are still many causes worth sacrificing for, so much history yet to be made.”
I grew up in a very racist environment – Memphis, Tennessee in the 50s. Separate drinking fountains, separate entrances and seating at the movie theaters, whites only signs everywhere, and, of course, the back of the bus. Quite admittedly, I didn’t know any better; I didn’t know how wrong it was because I was young and it was the structure I was taught to accept.
I attended White Station High School (emphasis at that time was on the word “white”). Then in 1965, when I was in the tenth grade, it all changed. The signs came down, you could sit anywhere on the bus you chose, and our school was no longer so white. For me, the transition was seamless, but I still didn’t quite get what it really meant. It takes a while to shake off conditioning.
I was in Memphis the day Martin Luther King was murdered. Like the John Kennedy assassination, I can remember everything about that day. Even so, I still carried notions that I had not quite rid myself of.
It wasn’t until years later when a friend put a book in my hand that I first began to truly understand. The book was “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, by Maya Angelou. It hit me like a sledgehammer. I felt the last vestiges of whatever racism I had been taught being stripped away, and in reflection I found what I believed was a deeper understanding of what it meant to be black in America. It gave me the awareness that, as a white man raised with all the privilege associated with that status, I would probably never fully understand, but that I could try my best to do what Dr. King dreamed of, namely, to judge all people by the content of their character.
Just recently I finished reading another book that affected me in much the same way – “Becoming”, by Michelle Obama. Like many Americans, I thought I knew her story, but, as is often the case, I didn’t know the half of it.
But that’s the beauty of reading. I’ve heard it said that you can live a thousand lives within the pages of a book.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day, 2019. Racism, I know, starts at a very early age. It is my hope that someday books like these are required reading in our schools. Maybe they will help our young people to be better human beings rather than products of their environments.