When I was a young man, I marched to the south side of my city to protest “red-lining”, a policy of excluding people of color from buying homes in certain areas of the city. That policy had long-range effects, including the fact that I live in what is still, longer after the policy was outlawed, one of the most segregated cities in the United States.
At one point in that march, a young girl, certainly no more than fourteen years old, came running across the street at us, shouting something or other. When a policeman stopped her, I heard her say to him, “I can’t help it. I just hate them.” I’m pretty sure “them” were the African-Americans who constituted a large part of the marchers.
That incident made it clear to me that you had to be taught to hate. That little girl didn’t have enough life experience to develop such a prejudice on her own. Someone — a parent, a sibling, a friend — had taught her to approve or reject people solely on the color of their skin. I think often of that girl, and I hope she grew up to learn better. I hope she escaped whatever culture of hate she had lived in. I hope she has, by faith and by education and experience, grown to learn that prejudice of any kind is an enemy of her faith and of the American ideal.
We are all prejudiced, of course. We are all taught to automatically see some things and some people as good and some things and some people as bad. My dear Irish grandmother referred to everybody in the world as “one of ours” or “not one of ours.” She even had a special dislike of Irish Catholics who had abandoned their Catholic faith. She called them “left-handers,” which is also, I now realize, an expression of prejudice against people who are left-handed. Good old Granny.
What brings us out of our primal prejudices is education and experience. What gives us the most powerful education to tear down our bigotries is the example of good people who stood up against prejudice and hatred of all kinds. Gandhi stood against the bigotry of the British, and he stands now, that man with no wealth or position, as a beacon of hope when all those who opposed him are long forgotten.
Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of those good people. He spoke when no one else would speak. He walked where others feared terribly to walk. He suffered violence and imprisonment and condemnations from a thousand different levels, but he kept speaking and writing and marching. He, a doctor or religion, made clear that religion without commitment to others is just a bunch of words, a cheap con game. He had a dream, but far more importantly he gave us a dream of a day that has not yet arrived but is at least on its way.
There are two odd things about icons like Dr. King. The first is that we seem to kill them off. The second is that, once we kill them off, we raise them up as symbols of the kind of people we really want to be. No one will ever hold up Donald Trump or Karl Icahn as symbols of our real ideals. Dr. King, however, will always stand as a beacon, an example, of what it could be like if we really followed the American ideal of the equal and inalienable rights of all people.
So black or white, female or male, old or young, in whatever way we differ, we owe it to ourselves to stop for a moment and thank Dr. King for standing so that we would not be afraid to stand, and for voicing, even though we were afraid to do so, our real commitment to America, not as a place, but as an ideal.
Thank you, Dr. King.