A New Day 50 Years Later

Most people in America that have a sense of history recognize this day as a defining moment in history. Some of us, myself among them, remember because we were born before this day. I admit because of my youth I wasn’t fully aware of the momentous occasion or the reason this speech was so powerful but years later I have.

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking

Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to an assembled crowd – click on image for 1963 speech

Whenever I hear the key message of this speech, I’m amazed at the simplicity and the power of those words. “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.

I’m also frequently reminded on other occasions how far we still have to go to make that dream a reality. That speech may have been primarily intended for people of darker skin color, but it resonated then and still does with people of lighter skin color as well. Look at this picture and you can see, Dr. King spoke to a wide audience and his message was received by a lot of white people as well. It spoke truth, which is a universal language to those willing to listen. Here’s how I see this message as it applies today. Go forward with an understanding that people will judge you for a lot of things which aren’t of value. I have no doubt there are people who will silently or actively dislike you on the basis of your skin color. It happens to me.

I recently was talking with someone for which I have a high regard, she’s intelligent and holds a doctorate. I was speaking to her and any others willing to thoughtfully engage on a currently hot topic. I lost the opportunity to discuss things rationally with her when she said, “You don’t understand because you’re not black”.  At that point I knew emotion was going to trump any further words from me. I felt pain, not my pain but hers for thinking this way.

Allow me to explain what race means to me and perhaps if you’re still reading this and are rational, you may understand what I say from this point going forth. I know full well there’s a lot of emotional discord among many in our community but, let’s recognize a few simple and reasonable thoughts about race or ethnicity. Neither you or I chose the color or country we were born in. For those fortunate to be born with all their limbs and faculties, we start from a similar condition. The moment we are born, the conditions change. Some will be born into wealth or comfortable circumstances, two loving parents and ample opportunity to move forward with their lives. Again, many of us will not but, the one thing we should recognize, we control our potential to be of value and beneficial to ourselves and others by the attitudes we carry.

Let us not automatically assume things about one another based on the color of our skin or the shape of our bodies. To do so simply limits us. I think back on a time when I served in the Marines, it was 1972 and the situation I was in was as a lower enlisted man. I was on kitchen / mess hall duty. We got up at 3:30 and started our morning routine to prepare the hall for the morning service. It was mostly cleaning and carrying duties because there were full-time cooks responsible for food preparation. I left the relatively racially tranquil city of Minneapolis having gone to fully integrated schools and was friends with just about anyone that wanted to be. I now was working in an environment of young people who grew up in hostility toward anyone outside of their race. The assumption by those that were bigoted, was that everyone thought like they did.

One stressful morning a group of white and black servicemen started in on each other. I wasn’t present when the argument started but throughout the morning and afternoon angry words were exchanged back and forth. I felt out-of-place between the two groups. At times I wanted no part of it and at other times I acted as a mediator because ‘I had no dog in this hunt’. In the next day or two things just seemed to be getting worse. Mess hall duty is anything but fun and this was making it worse. There was a point when things were building and the taunts were setting the stage for the two groups to meet somewhere off hours and fight each other.

Finally a break in the emotional storm clouds occurred when one of the black guys accused one of the white guys of being a blankety-blank racist. I don’t know if it was me at first or others but suddenly laughter started. I knew as well as others, this ‘racist white guy’ was married to a very dark Latino woman. She was as black as any of those among our kitchen enlisted. Once the laughter began, the accuser wanted to know, ‘what was so funny’? The explanation was given, he was married to a black girl and didn’t give a rat’s back door about anyone. As a matter of fact he amused us all when he declared, “I hate everyone equally”.  From that day going forth things settled down and even the more bitter of the racial instigators kept their mouth shut.

What does this mean to anyone else? Perhaps little but, I face public prejudice when I attempt to reach out for full-time employment. Ever since the economy crashed in 2008 I found myself facing a dilemma I never had before. I became ‘old’ and out of work. You see there’s a new bias I face and it’s larger than any glass ceiling writers talk about or pundits pontificate on. The reality is once you’re over 55 or 60, the potential for regaining meaningful employment is drastically reduced. No one can tell you, you’re old, you have no chance of getting this job because it’s against the law. You just don’t get interviewed or if you do, the first thing they want to ask is what you expect for compensation. Really? I barely told you my name and that’s the next question? Sometimes you get the polite answer, you’re over qualified. Hmmmm…. So, if you select a Doctor, Attorney or Automotive mechanic, you want only those that are barely qualified?

It’s a real world with people of all stripes, shapes and colors. Just don’t color your world in a place that suggests others can’t understand you because you are a different skin color. Chances are they know what it’s like to be rejected, insulted and maybe even downright disliked.

It's a great day to celebrate. You're alive!


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