"Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women living on the earth
Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together in our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong
We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead we are bound and we are bound"
The streets are quiet for an early Monday morning when I remember that it is a holiday and the schools are closed. Martin Luther King's birthday is today. Almost immediately I am taken back to that day in 1968 when as a 9th grader at Callanan Junior High in Des Moines, Iowa, I experienced a watershed moment.
I never really liked the Catholic grade school we Kingkade kids attended, so when my parents announced towards the end of my 6th grade year that we were all going to be attending public school next year, I was thrilled. Thrilled enough to share it with my classmates on the rough and tumble playground then next day. "I'm going to Callanan next year", I proudly announced. "Oh yeah, well the ni^*+*^ are going to beat the crap out of you", claimed one of my peers.
While that rocked my enthusiasm for a moment as I silently walked away, I distinctly remember thinking "I don't think so". Why I didn't confront that boy, I'm not sure because his statement certainly did not match my view of the world, not that my world was all that big.
It should be noted that I was attending an all-white school where one of the games played on the playground was called "Black Tom". Boys would line up on one end of the yard and then race to the other end.The last boy to make it went immediately to the middle of the field and when the boys raced back across the yard again, he would tackle someone. Then there were 2. On it went until there was but one tough guy left to try to make it across the yard without being tackled. It was unsupervised, it was rough and I never played.
Not only did I not get the "crap beat out of me" at my new school, I soon come to love nearly everything about going to school there everyday. Not that it didn't have it's challenges.
Physical education was new and so was taking a shower after gym class, as we called it. Early on in the year, I overheard a few of my black peers talking about skin color in away I'd never heard before. "Hey bro, your mama is butterscotch", said one to another as he was laughing and snapping his towel at him. "Oh yeah? Well, I seen your daddy and he is blacker than burnt toast!" More howls of laughter and towel snapping. I was a bit shocked to say the least and was pretty sure that was a conversation I needed to stay out of.
Another learning moment occurred when I playfully addressed one of my new classmates by saying "hey boy" when I was met with an angry response that included, "Boy? Don't you call me boy!" As I scurried away I heard something else said about "boy" being a slave term. Lesson learned.
I can see now that while I realized it or not, my parents had prepared me to deal with moments just like those. They openly talked about politics, civil rights and the issues of race that were occurring in the country at that time. I remember my mother telling me how my dad went to bat for a black man at the newspaper who he saw being discriminated against. Never was a bigoted word or action tolerated. And when I came home from school that fall mimicking the dialect of my new black classmates, I was quickly told to "knock it off, you don't talk that way". My father made it clear that what I thought was funny, he saw as disrespectful.
In the summer of 1967, I was nudged into participating in a youth project sponsored by an inter-city group called the Northern Brotherhood Leadership Conference. We met in a house in a part of the city that was to be the epic center of what was referred to as "race riots" the following summer. The message from my parents was to "get involved and make a difference" but mostly, don't be afraid.
News didn't travel as fast that day as it does now, so by the time the TV stations had interrupted regular programming with the news of Dr. King's assassination, I was in my room, sound asleep. My mother came and woke me, crying and angry about what seemed like a bad dream. We talked, I suppose I mostly listened, then I went back to sleep. It was a school night, after all.
The junior high I attended was racially mixed, which meant black and white in those days. And while there had been some tension and mild unrest amongst the students, most days found us occupied with things that junior high kids are consumed with- relationships, clothing, music and all the drama that goes with emergent hormones. We mixed freely and relatively easily, all things considered.
But as I headed across the freeway bridge on 31st Street and into the brick school building on that Friday morning, I was afraid. But not enough to stay home.
It wasn't long when the rumors started. "There's going to be fights" "Someone is going to get hurt". "There's going to be trouble". I could see the anger and hurt on my classmates faces. You could hear it their voices. I thought I understood and I knew I didn't understand it at all.
In gym class, some of us were sent outside to play softball while others stayed inside with the teacher. Things were not as usual this day-what would otherwise be an uneventful game of work-me-up softball became a chaotic game as my hurt and angry classmates vented their emotions. When it came my turn to bat, one of my black classmates stepped in front of me and grabbed the bat out of my hands, provoking me with some comments I don't recall. I just remember the tension. I stepped back not wishing to add fuel to the fire when another black classmate yelled, "He's OK, let him play". He handed me the bat, the game resumed and the moment passed.
Later that day we had an assembly in the auditorium where two of our faculty, Mr. Harris, a black art teacher who was also a minister, and Mrs. Hyde, a black english teacher, provided words and wisdom that seemed to calm the anger and soothe some of the hurt, at least for the moment.
We went home for the weekend and returned the next Monday and the school year went on without much ado. But we were changed as young people, in similar ways and in ways I couldn't and may not yet fully understand.
Today, I'm even more grateful for the leadership shown by the faculty who challenged us to honor the legacy of Dr. King with compassion, dignity and respect.
I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to experience that time and place where I learn so much more than math, English or music.
I'm grateful for parents, who with all their shortcomings, taught me the value of treating every human being with respect and to not be afraid.
And I'm grateful my family today does not look like me.