I debated about writing this post. I thought about writing it, then discarded the thought. I thought about it again. Even now, I write it with trepidation. I’m writing it because I know that if I don’t I will continue to think about it. It will become an earworm.
I don’t want to come across as a privileged white male writing about the poor oppressed blacks. I don’t want to seem as if I am pandering about their great struggle in the way that some closet condescenders do. Those folks who join with their “brothers,” but do so with a hidden air of superiority.
I don’t even want to write about Martin Luther King on Martin Luther King Day. Instead, I want to write about feelings, specifically my feelings.
I traveled to Memphis with my friend Tom and his son Charlie to tour the Gibson guitar factory. It was a long ride from Chicago, but we are good travel companions. We arrived early Sunday afternoon. Tom had been to Memphis before and wanted to stay at the Peabody hotel, which is directly downtown. It is a beautiful place with the classic styling of the 1920s. We settled into our room.
After a bit, we ventured into an unseasonably cold Memphis evening and walked the short distance from the Peabody to Central BBQ for dinner. I was impressed with my slab of ribs, my friend Tom’s more discerning palate was not. From Central BBQ I could see the old sign from the Lorraine Motel. Dear reader, if you don’t recall this is the motel where Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated at in 1968. The motel and adjoining buildings are now the National Civil Rights Museum. We decided to go to the museum on Monday, which was Martin Luther King day.
I was already struck with a racial divide in Memphis. Our hotel’s occupants were mostly white, the staff was a high percentage black. The blues bars patrons were often white, but the main performers were often black. This is not some political statement, it is just an observation. An observation that struck me.
On Monday we stood in a moderately long line at the Civil Rights Museum. The line moved quickly. Due to the holiday, the entrance “donation” was reduced to $5. My calculation was that the attendees were about 95% black. I did not feel out-of-place. I was met with smiles and nods from both staff and fellow visitors. There was clearly a, “we are so pleased you came,” feeling.
I entered a long room that contained a civil rights art exhibit. I was struck with one piece that seemed to be a combination of abstract art and words. The art had a high relief that gave it power. It made me want to stare at it. In the background, I could hear a grandmother talking to her young granddaughter. She was carefully explaining to her the meaning of each picture while she deftly wove in just a little bit of history to reinforce her narrative. She wanted the little girl to remember. She wanted her to learn.
I moved into another room, this one crowded with people. In the middle of the round room was a docent. Talking with a loud clear preacher style oration, he recounted the history of slavery. How colonists first tried to enslave the Native Americans, then indentured servants from Europe, finally Africans. Africans proved the best as they were purchased as property, and thereby couldn’t work themselves towards freedom. He spoke of the first country to abolish slavery (Haiti) and the last one (Brazil). He noted that children born from slaves were automatically the property of their owners. As property, they could be used for whatever purpose the owner wished. They could be sold and taken away from their parents without notice or consequence. He said that the plantation owners were some of the wealthiest people in the country; their fortunes based on this labor model. I moved on.
I stopped at an old 1950s style bus and entered at the back door. I looked at photos of black people crowded and standing in the back, while front seats were empty. An audio recording of a bus driver barked orders: “Get on back. If you don’t give up your seat I’ll have you arrested!” I moved on.
I came upon a Greyhound bus from the 1960s. It was a wreck with its aluminum roof burnt into eerie shards. The bus contained black “Freedom Fighters” ambushed by a hate group. The bus had been set ablaze. I moved on.
I looked at the balcony where Dr. King was assassinated. I moved on.
Dear reader, I remember these events as a child. I remember the hate that whites felt towards blacks. I remember my fear that blacks were going to hurt me. My belief that they were somehow inherently corrupt, bad, and dangerous. I can’t even say where I got those fears, but I know that they were common in the blue-collar Chicago neighborhood where I grew up.
I don’t exactly remember when my prejudice left me, but it was a long time ago. I believe the process was gradual. I know that it involved interacting with African Americans. I remember being fearful in high school. I remember that during two different high school years two black teachers reached out to me. They seemed to think that I was special and unique. I was worth their time and energy. I was worth taking under their wings. They told me about their families, confiding in me their dreams. They encouraged me. They told me I was meant to do more. I was here to do more. I wanted to believe them.
I always knew that I was different, odd, and unlike others. I thought different was something to be ashamed of. I was ashamed of being me. Why was I born the way I was? Why couldn’t I have been like everyone else? Those teachers also knew what different was, in me they saw a special kind of different. I was unique and one of a kind. Rather than a thing to be avoided and rejected, they saw me as a person to be celebrated and cared for.
The teachers were just the start of my transformation from prejudice. This essay is not about the black struggle. It is about people who are judged based on irrelevant trivial but identifiable attributes. Human beings who are rejected, hated, punished, or worse based on characteristics that they have little or no control over. Skin color, religion, political belief, gender, sexual preference, ways of thinking, body size. Name your poison.
How is it possible for us to convince ourselves that there is justification for such actions? Yet, we do so easily and without apology. We find the bad apple in a group and use them as our reference. We remember the facts that support our hypothesis and ignore the data that rejects it. We evoke God and say we are doing His work when we exclude or torture others. We are God’s people, we shout. The “others” are not.
Yet, it is so clear that diversity of all types makes a nation stronger. It brings new energy, new ideas, new solutions. Excluding groups does the opposite.
Will it ever be possible for humans to identify with each other based on an individual’s worth and character instead of nonsensical and unproductive biases? It has been 50 years since the death of Martin Luther King. There have been changes and shifts in our world, but in some ways, our anger and prejudices have just moved to new groups to fear and hate.
…In the background, I could hear a grandmother talking to her young granddaughter. She was carefully explaining to her the meaning of each picture while she deftly wove in just a little bit of history to reinforce her narrative. She wanted the little girl to remember. She wanted her to learn…