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He had a dream.

January 18, 2011

This day of remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. has stirred memories of my own “growing up” before, during, and since the civil rights movement.  It surprises me when I remember that every school I attended from first grade until I graduated from high school in 1967, was segregated.  College was my first experience of getting to learn with people of color.  The diversity was not as balanced as it should have been, but at least it was present.

Fortunately for me, I had other opportunities during childhood to cross the lines of color that were so clearly drawn at that time.  My earliest memory of an influential African-American in my life came before I started school.  My dad went into business for himself, opening a full service gas station.  His only employee was a black man that everyone called Bourbon.  I loved to watch him as he worked.  I loved drinking a cold bottle of Grapette pop from the vending machine while listening to him tell stories and laugh.  When he laughed I laughed, and all seemed right with the world.

There was a family owned restaurant next to my dad’s station.  We ate there a lot.  Bourbon did too.  We ate in the front, Bourbon in the back, with the other black folks.  That back room is permanently engrained in my memory.  We walked through the “colored” room to get to the front.  Who knows how many times I passed Bourbon sitting in his room while on my way to mine.  I wasn’t more than four years old and even then I knew that arrangement wasn’t right, didn’t make sense, and I felt embarrassed that I was a part of it.

Then there was Eddy, my grandfather’s only ranch hand.  When at my grandparents I worked beside Eddy, feeding cattle, herding cattle, and listening to he and my grandfather talk cattle.  There wasn’t a “colored” dining room at the Lazy A.  Eddy sat at my grandparent’s kitchen table with us when he ate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had 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.”

He spoke those words in August, 1963.  In December, 1960, I went with my best friend and her mother to the annual Christmas parade in downtown Tulsa.  I was in the 6th grade, full of untested opinions about how the world should operate in regard to color.  The streets were crowded with families standing in the cold waiting to be ushered in to the holiday season.  As the parade began to pass I became aware of a young woman standing beside me.  She had two little girls with her, maybe three years old and much too short to see over the crowd.  She held one for a while, then the other, back and forth, up and down.  It didn’t seem like a huge gesture, just a sensible one as I asked if I could hold one of the girl’s while she held the other so both could see.

The parade ended.  The young woman thanked me again.  I said good-bye to the little girls.  I didn’t think I had taken a stand across the color line.  I just knew how much fun it had been to enjoy the parade through the eyes of children.  The fun ended when we returned to my friend’s house and sat down at the kitchen table to eat.  They began to make jokes about what I had done as though it was inconceivable that a white person would do such a thing, and that I must be uninformed or stupid for having chosen to help.  I can still recall the sickening, angry feeling that my “best” friend was behaving this way and her parents, adults I trusted, were encouraging her by participating in the teasing.  I was glad to get back home to the safety and freedom of my own family’s kindness and acceptance.

I look back on that experience and am reminded that it is often the children who take the first step toward good.  I was a child then.  It was years later before I defined my actions as courageous.  At the time I just thought of them as right.  There is a child nearby willing to be kind, willing to see something beautiful in others, willing to step toward what is right.  That child is also watching you.  When the first, courageous step is taken, let’s make sure we’re not standing in the way.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  MLK

Thank you Dr. King.

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