I remember the first time I saw a TV commercial featuring a black family. It was a Crest toothpaste commercial, set in a typical house in the suburbs, with an exasperated mother chasing a child who had left home without having brushed his teeth. Except the mother and child were black. Our family’s reaction was demonstrable surprise — “Hey, look at that!”
Maybe that surprise was because I lived in an area with no minorities. There was a potato farmer up the road who employed Mexican laborers in the summer, but that was about it. There were no students of color in our smallish village school. “Negroes” all lived in their own areas in the county’s bigger cities. Other than seeing them in athletics, they might have well been on another planet.
So we followed the Civil Rights movement through the media. We knew it was a tough struggle, but how tough? My thoughts today when I think back on that period are those of amazement — how much trouble you could get into, no matter your age or gender, for simply saying the wrong thing or going to the wrong door. Or even being too successful.
I’ve never felt any strong personal attachment to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I have seen his picture discreetly displayed in black businesses, heard his speeches, and so have come to admire his accomplishments; I must say his “I Have a Dream Speech” on August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C. is the best I’ve ever heard (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smEqnnklfYs).
But then a friend suggested I read his April 16, 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” (https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html). It’s not short; it’s a comprehensive argument for the Civil Rights movement and the corresponding role of religion. This part particularly stood out to me —
“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
Dr. King poses very good questions that even today remain largely unanswered in many aspects of our society. It’s good that this holiday comes in January, because it gives us something to think about for the rest of the year.
Happy MLK Day!