There are defining, national moments in every generation. December 7, 1941 is one for my parent’s generation. September 11, 2001 is one for my sons’ generation. November 22, 1963 is one for my generation. I was in second grade. When I walked through the door, my mother and great0aunt were glued to the little black and white tv in the corner of the living room. I vividly remember an eerie silence when I shouted, “I’m home!” and an instant awareness that something was terribly wrong.
The 1960s was a turbulent time in our nation, and the world: Viet Nam, civil rights, and a whole host of other complex geo-political and cultural events. It felt like the decade of assassinations: John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. I was standing in line, waiting to go into class after lunch recess. Mrs. Stern, my 6th grade teacher, stood at the door and told us that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee. Lorraine Dixon, the girl standing behind me in line, started crying. That was April 4, 1968.
That year, Lorraine and I formed a tight friendship. We were the two newest girls in the sixth grade. Everyone else in my class had been attending the elementary school their whole lives. While my family had moved from a neighboring town, Lorraine was bussed from East Palo Alto. She was the only black student in the school.
Prior to 6th grade, I wasn’t too aware of racial prejudice or economic inequality. That year, 1968, was a rude awakening to both. Our school didn’t have a cafeteria, so when it rained we ate our lunches in the classroom. Lorraine and I were sitting together; she was eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Suddenly the yard duty, a male student teacher, rushed into our classroom, grabbed Lorraine by one of her braids, shouting, “You won’t get away with this!” She, in the meantime, grabbed me. Desks were knocked over and we all ended up on the ground. We were hauled down to the principle’s office. Lorraine was accused of throwing something at the yard duty as he was making his rounds in the halls. I was implicated because I was Lorraine’s friend.
After lunch, Mrs. Stern had a class meeting to discuss “the incident”. Not one person came to Lorraine’s defense, even after I spoke up and said they all knew she didn’t do it because they had just been teasing her about not having her own lunch and eating my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And, while we were in the principle’s office, a kid from the other 6th grade class told the others he had thrown the object and blamed it on Lorraine. I learned then that peer pressure is powerful; the color of your skin does matter; and you can still get into trouble even if you tell the truth.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was that all people would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Dr. King’s dream declared that “now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” He challenged us:
Let us not wallow in the valley of despair. I say to you today, my friends: so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream rooted in the American dream…I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all people are created equal.
While much has been accomplished in the name of civil rights, there is still prevalent in our nation, many who do not experience the reality of justice because they are an immigrant, they are not Christian, they are not heterosexual, there skin is not white, they do not have health insurance.
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in a divine, loving presence that binds all of life. This belief was the force behind all of his quests to eliminate social evil. He said,
When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Chrisitan-Jewish-Buddhist belief about the ultimate reality is beautifully summed in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another; for love is God and everyone that loves is born of God and knows God.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about one who responded in the name of love. His exemplary life will always be a flashing light to plague the complacency of humankind. His goodness was not a passive commitment to a particular creed, but in his active participation in a life-saving deed; not in a moral pilgrimage that reached its destination, but in the love ethic by which he journeyed in life. He was good because he was a good neighbor.
Coming next: In the Name of Love, Part 2