Today, in recognition of Martin Luther King Day, I am rerunning my column from September 1, 2013, which was originally posted a few days after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington:
Last week our nation observed the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s famous speech in which he outlined the vision of his dream of a more just society.
It was richly appropriate that, on this day of observance, our first African- American president spoke in commemoration of the day tens of thousands met and marched in our nation’s capital and listened to Dr. King speak on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
President Obama acknowledged the progress that has been made in 50 years, saying that “to suggest, as some sometimes do, that little has changed … dishonors the courage, the sacrifice of those who paid the price to march in those years.”
But the president pointed out that work remains to be done, calling economic justice the “unfinished business” of the civil rights battle. Change takes time — sometimes generations of time.
Just as it is hard to fathom slavery as once being legal in this country, it is equally difficult to imagine that, during my lifetime, blacks and whites had separate water fountains and restrooms.
I can remember, as a young child, my doctor’s office having a “colored” waiting room. The local Boys’ Club refused to admit black members, meaning they could not play on the club-sponsored city sports teams.
Although some tried to justify such atrocities with the term “separate but equal,” there was nothing equal about any of it.
Unfortunately, I grew up around much prejudice and racism. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had to form a number of independent opinions to overcome some of the ideas and thoughts to which I was repeatedly exposed.
Some wonderful people helped me along the way, including African-American classmates, teachers and colleagues who demonstrated the strong character Dr. King referenced when he said people should be judged by such, rather than the color of their skin.
My enlightenment, if you will, started with Gregory, the brave little boy in my second-grade class, one of two African-American children who came to my elementary school in the fall of 1965.
My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Boone, also opened my eyes, showing Gregory unconditional love and acceptance. By the end of the year, none of us thought of him as any different from the rest of us. He was just Gregory.
He was bright and kind, and he and I were friends. Unfortunately, the friendship could only go so far at the time. There was an unspoken understanding that I would never ask him over to my house or go places with him outside of school.
As time went on and schools in my hometown became fully integrated, more African-American classmates helped me by showing that their hopes and dreams were just the same as mine: to get an education, to go to college and to have a career and family.
By the time I graduated from high school, I gave little thought to the difference in skin color of classmates and teachers. Blacks and whites shared class office duties, played on teams together and stood beside each other on the homecoming court.
But the social lines were still distinct. I knew that in many ways life was harder for my African-American friends. Few of them had parents with good jobs. Neighborhoods were still segregated.
There were few, if any, non-school activities that brought us together. Sadly, this included church, an institution that should have been leading the way in bringing about reconciliation.
The African-Americans I grew up with knew what it felt like to endure glares, to be unjustly accused because of their race and to have someone cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to be their advocate, and I wish I had been a better friend.
I never saw Gregory again after second grade. I moved to a different elementary school after that year and by the time we would have been brought back together in junior high or high school, his family had moved to another city.
I doubt he fully appreciated what he was doing when he walked into an all-white classroom in 1965.
Today I hope he remembers, and I hope he’s proud.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, husband of one, father of three and father-in- law of two. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.