As we all reflect on this historical day, the day before the first black American is sworn in as President, and the celebration of Dr. King, we all have our own view of this historic moment, through our own personal lens. For some, Dr. King and his famous “I Have a Dream speech”, must seem like a history lesson and for others, it is history “relived”. Having been born in 1942, August 28th was only three days before I was married. Having grown up, a child of the South, with roots going back hundreds of years, segregation was something I never considered, any more than the kid that always drove the new car because his father owned a dealership. My grandmother’s maid, Evergreen Reed, had become my mother’s cleaning lady and there was never any malice toward her and in fact it was expected that I obey her in the absence of parents. She always called me “son” and demanded I take off my school clothes, which she quickly ironed again. She rode the bus home, sitting in the back of course, and if she missed the bus, my mother would drive her home. She lived with her daughter, daughter’s husband and grandchildren, in a very small wooded house in the “colored area”.
In the country, where my father leased thousands of acres of land for hunting, Ishcola Bryant was the cook. This was in the most rural area of Alabama, miles from a paved road and 20 miles from a small country town. I remember in her very neat house, there were two velvet pictures, one of Dr. King and the other JFK. There was never any abuse of either of these two women, other than the abuse of no awareness. Our lack of awareness, made it acceptable for black Americans to live in poverty, to go to separate and very inferior schools, to get paid what the white man paid, to suffer cold, sickness, and ignorance. That was our great sin, the total lack of awareness. For me, a student at the University of Alabama when Gov. Wallace stood in the door and defied the Federal troops, I felt justified in that I thought, “who are these people from all over the North, where we knew segregation existed, coming to our state and causing all these riots. It would never have occurred to me that I was the one that was so ignorant. Of course the local papers helped that ignorance. The Mobile and Tuscaloosa papers led the public to believe that laws were being broken, and that the police brutality was justified. Well thought of Civil Rights Leaders in Mobile were constantly harassed, and jailed on trumped up charges. On that August day so many years ago, I was not a bit interested in Dr. King or anything he had to say but more interested in my upcoming marriage and the socially acceptable sex that went with it.
It was perhaps 5 years after Dr. King’s speech that I met an Episcopal Priest that had marched and knew Dr. King, that I finally had my eyes opened. Pat was my father’s age, WWII pilot, jazz musician, that became a priest and through him, I learned of the struggle. I will never forget his telling me that King had told him “They have to kill me”. Perhaps that was in his mind when he said, “I may not get there with you”. Maybe that is part of the reason I was first attracted to Obama, in that I did not stand up in the 60’s and this was my time. However, I think he transcends all of that because not only has black America been energized, so has white America, and so has much of the rest of the world. Thousands of foreign visitors are in our nations capital to celebrate this historical time.
To think that January 20th will solve all the problems our nation faces is beyond naïve, it would border on insanity. President-Elect Obama has stated clearly that it may take years to recover all that we have lost and that clearly government cannot do it all. If ever in my life, including JFK, this is the loudest call to public service I have ever heard. Of course there will be the naysayers, the people that thrive on negative thinking that is almost an elixir for them and they will never be satisfied. To them I would say, “I remember the crude names that Dr. King was called, watched without much emotion the dogs, the water hoses, the murders and those memories will be with me always”. The jury is certainly out on the Obama Administration and will likely be out for years but why not let us all believe that this most improbable man perhaps has come at a time when the nation is at the brink. Rather saying it is too late, he is simply manipulated by some evil force, let us drop our doubts and join the country and the world as we all look to a brighter future.