The Martin Luther King national holiday (MLK Day) is very special to me, as one who came of age during the height of the civil rights movement. Two of the most important chapters of my book, “Proving Ground: A Memoir,” recount the things I witnessed and experienced during those times. The chapters were titled, simply, “1963” and “1968.” I love this country and the amazing progress our society has achieved during my lifetime. The 1960s changes brought about by the civil rights movement are stunning evidence of our country’s exceptional nature – our “superpower.”
1963 was the year of the March on Washington, the seminal event where Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. I was ten years old at the time, too young to make the trip even if I had understood the event’s importance. Our up-the-street neighbor Marsha Taylor went to the march with a busload of other folks from Flint. I watched television coverage while sitting on our living room floor, at my grandmother’s knee. It was simultaneously exciting and terrifying to see so many folks gathered in the nation’s capital. Exciting because it was a seismic event, the likes of which I had never seen. Terrifying because I was afraid some violence might befall the attendees.
Like nearly everyone else I knew, I was enthralled by Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech. I was particularly struck by one key line: “I have a dream that my four little 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.” Those words ignited a movement that fundamentally changed the character of this country. Many people don’t know, and others have forgotten, the extent to which pre-1960s America was dominated by one group of people – white males. Their dominance extended to all aspects of public life – business, government, academia, entertainment, media. The March on Washington was a clear inflection point on the path to a new America. The civil rights movement kicked open the door to public life, but that opening didn’t serve only blacks. Women, Asians, Latinos, gays, and practically every other marginalized group expanded their presence in America’s public square, to the benefit of the entire nation.
Many people don’t know or don’t remember how awful the days following the March on Washington were. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, white supremacist terrorists bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls: Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, and Carole Robertson. Perhaps the terrorist haters were responding to this line in Dr. King’s speech, delivered barely two weeks earlier:
“I have a dream that… one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
If anyone had been inspired to think that racial hatred would suddenly dissipate following the March on Washington, the cowardly church bombing would have disabused them of that notion. It was a graphic, tough lesson for a ten-year-old child to absorb – that people were willing to kill innocent children like me to prohibit racial integration.
The hits just kept on coming in the fall of 1963. On November 22, I was sitting in Miss Saltman’s 5th grade classroom at Walker Elementary School when someone summoned her to the hallway. Miss Saltman returned moments later, visibly shaken, and announced that President John F. Kennedy had been killed that afternoon in Dallas, Texas. Amid gasps from me and my classmates, she said a prayer (I’m not supposed to do this, but I don’t care”) and sent us all home.
I was heartbroken. I didn’t have many heroes at ten years old, but President Kennedy certainly qualified. I remember watching his televised speeches with my grandmother. As a science-obsessed youngster, I was inspired by his promise that the U.S. would send men to the moon and back before the end of the decade. The thing that stuck with me most, though, was the call to service enunciated in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words inspired me to think about what I could do to be of service to my family, my community, my country…and to the world.
The lessons I learned by the time I was ten continued to inspire me and inform my choices during my years at Whittier Junior High School. I sensed an impending world of greater justice and expanding opportunity. Then 1968 happened..
The news flash appeared on TV the evening of April 4: the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was shot dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Dr. King was in Memphis to support the cause of sanitation workers who were pressing for better pay and working conditions. In the days following his murder, I heard over and over the speech he delivered the evening before his assassination. His words, sorrowful yet prophetic, still ring in my ears to this day.
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Dr. King’s words portended a seismic shift in global society, toward a world in which many more people of different races, and many more women, would play leadership roles. The shift couldn’t be stopped by Dr. King’s murder, or by the murder of JFK’s younger brother Bobby Kennedy, which occurred just two months later. The societal change couldn’t be halted by the election of Richard Nixon, which occurred in November of that momentous year. Dr. King’s vision has power because it is rooted in a God-given biological fact. That fact is, as my grandmother used to say, people are people. To put it more scientifically, we are all homo sapiens, blessed with (on average) the same capabilities regardless of skin color. Over the long sweep of history, that fact continues to assert itself.
In the aftermath of the 1960s, the United States made tremendous gains. We became an economic, cultural, technological, and military superpower, arguably the greatest society in human history. How did we achieve such lofty status in the community of nations? The answer: our founding documents enshrined ideas that allowed our country, more than any other, to take advantage of the broad range of capabilities available in the human community. “All men are created equal.” Government “of, by, and for the people.” Freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and on and on. Those founding documents also provided the mechanisms for growth and evolution that resulted in the ideas implanted in my ten-year-old brain – ideas that inspired my career and life choices, but more importantly, fueled the explosive growth and influence of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century.
- Judge a person not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
- Prioritize service to others in order to make the world a better place.
Those two simple ideas transformed America and the world, and even led to the election of a black man as president of the United States.
Of course, the forces of racial hatred, factionalism, and self-interest are still with us. Those forces cannot prevail in the long term because, well, people are people. I don’t mean to imply that the forces of hatred and division cannot set us back or even cause the downfall of the United States. Just as our founding ideas and the perfection of those ideas fueled the country’s rise to its preeminent position, the neglect or active destruction of those ideas can lead to its fall. We can refuse to take advantage of the myriad capabilities that exist in the human family. We can attempt to divide society into factions based upon external physical characteristics. We can choose to value self-service over community service. Taking those actions would be tantamount to killing our superpower. The resulting decline of our country, if it comes, will not be experienced only by its black citizens – it will be experienced by all. We will rise, or fall, together.
Today’s atmosphere of division and cultural conflict occurs at a very bad time. We live in a time of unprecedented, accelerating technological change, environmental disruption, and wealth disparity. In this time of heightened fear and uncertainty, things could turn catastrophic very quickly. On the other hand, the unprecedented knowledge and resources we possess could set the stage for humanity’s greatest era. We are poised at the threshold of our brightest times, or our darkest times. That is why now, more than ever, we need to heed the call of MLK to treat each other as brothers and sisters. And we must summon the spirit of JFK to boldly and confidently face the future.
Let me put this another way. We in the United States need to get off our collective ass and refocus on our ideals. We need to focus on the values that have made this country great – the values that have served as a beacon of hope to people throughout the world. We must promote democracy and self-determination, here and around the world. We are witness to people who are boldly seeking to undermine democracy, and to reject the notion that we are all equal members of the human family. We must strongly reject such people and such ideas.
Most importantly, we must re-dedicate ourselves to the idea of service. Too often our political discourse focuses on what group in society is receiving benefits. Tax breaks for the rich. Bailouts for banks. Earned-income tax credits for the poor. Paid family leave for workers. Free community college and loan forgiveness for students. R&D tax credits for entrepreneurs. We should judge each policy proposal based on how it benefits the country – how it promotes the general welfare – rather than on whose ox is being fed or gored.
I leave you with the words of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King:
“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
Amen to that.