When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, I had not even been born yet. By the time I reached adulthood, legal segregation was a thing of the past even though discrimination still happens to this very day.
I didn’t really understand segregation growing up.
One man who stood up to it and gave his life for his stand was Dr. King.
Growing up, I had a close friend and mentor, who was also an African-American. He was the Rev. Jackson Parks, and he told me personal accounts of what it was like to grow up in the segregated South.
“I was a little boy, about seven years old and we were in the car on a road trip and I had to go to the bathroom. Daddy kept pulling into gas stations, but they didn’t have a” restroom for Black people, Parks told me. “He finally let me relieve myself on the side of the road, but it always hurt me that I had to just hold it like that. It could have made me bitter, and at first, it did.”
When he was coming along, Parks lived in a time where Black people were allowed in a White movie theater, but only if they sat in the balcony. Neighborhoods were “redlined” in an effort to keep Black people from integrating White neighborhoods. Black men in the South were nearly sure to get pulled over by the police for having a White woman in the car with them. Even White people who didn’t support segregation could face discrimination and abuse as well.
Parks told me the words and writings of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired him to look away from bitterness caused by the past and look to the future. Parks began mentoring young men of all races.
By the time of his death in 2013, hundreds of young men called Parks “Pops,” including me. Parks intentionally planned outings and events with White and Black youths together and looked on with pride as the young men talked with one another and learned how similar they were, despite the colors of their skin. Parks always credited King for the inspiration to become involved in community service.
King was inspired by another leader. As he rose to prominence, King stated that he drew his inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi.
King inherited his Baptist minister father’s fiery oratory, but it was through TV that his words reached out across America. Coupled with images of the violence perpetrated against peaceful protestors, TV gave King an unrivaled podium to reach a mass audience. King was arrested some 29 times and those arrests were duly reported on the nightly news.
For most White people living in the 1960s, segregation was just the way life was. They were aware of the segregated lunch counters, theaters, hotels, water fountains and bathrooms. Many people simply bought into the notion of “separate but equal.”
America, however, received a stern awakening from pictures that shocked the nation – police dogs set loose on unarmed protestors and water cannons turned on innocent crowds.
The violent imagery on the news was followed with speeches and quotes from King who did not call for a violent uprising but a nonviolent, reasoned approach.
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” King said.
King, like Gandhi, seemed to know that it was unlikely he would live to see his dream fulfilled. He loved his children deeply but was mentally prepared to meet a fate that would mean he would not be around to see them reach adulthood.
King was willing to sacrifice his life if it meant his children could grow to adulthood in a society that valued a person’s character over the color of their skin.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop…I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land,” King said in his final speech.
As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I hope that all of us, of every color, will reflect that we have yet to reach King’s promised land; indeed, some might say that we have begun marching away from it. But the promised land is still there, ripe to be found.
King may have left this Earth long ago, but his spirit, vision and dreams remain alive.