by Randy Walker
Dr. King's name evokes images of a leader who became a martyr for his cause. He stood against social and racial injustice during the tumultuous sixties of the twentieth century when such words and actions provoked violent retaliation from narrow, bigoted people who feared change. The fact that he insisted that protests be conducted using non-violent social disobedience seems ironic in light of his violent and untimely death on April 4, 1968, from an assassin's bullet. When he proclaimed: “…I've been to the mountaintop and I've seen the Promised Land. And I might not get there with you,” during his “Mountain Top Speech,” the people gathered in that Memphis, Tennessee, church were left with an eerie feeling the next day. That was the day he was shot dead on a Memphis hotel balcony. His words are timeless and relevant for today, and his spirit lives on in those who seek justice in the face of nasty attacks and potential violence. I admire his legacy and what he stood for, but it has not always been that way.
I was a child in the sixties, as opposed to, “a child of the sixty's.” As such, I was surrounded by the blatant racism so prevalent, especially in the South, during that time. My children are appalled when I tell them of seeing “Whites Only” signs outside public restrooms and some restaurants, but they were there in all their shameful glory of the era. When I started school, it was the first year racial integration was implemented in the school system I entered. I recall my parents WARNING me about the colored kids who might be in my class. They told me to avoid them because they were different. As a child, I remember thinking: “Are they dirty? Do they carry germs? I can see they are a different color, but why should I avoid them?”
Now, let me stop and explain that I, in NO way, blame my parents for teaching me such atrocious things. They—obviously—are older than me, and they, too, are victims of the paradigms of their time. They have also evolved beyond the narrow bigotry of the era.
When did my views and feelings toward Dr. King evolve, you may be asking? Well, I don't think I can pinpoint an exact date and time, but I do remember struggling to keep my curiosity as a child. My teenage years included a rebellion against fundamentalism, not a good rebellion, mind you, but a destructive, in-your-face, and I-don’t-care-what-you-think-of-me sort of way. I grew into an angry, self-loathing young man, who I (as I am now) would not have enjoyed being around. The anger carried over into adulthood until I hit rock bottom over a decade ago. I spent time in places no one needs to see, much less be a part of. Pain and loss are effective motivators for change, and I, slowly but surely, begin to realize that there is good in every human being. To me, the source of that goodness is not apparent and can be debated, but it is still there. In other words, my experiences have taught me empathy and compassion for even the fundamentalists I so often criticize. With this mindset, I admire and salute Dr. King’s legacy and his struggle against injustice in any form.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King!