Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fight to end racism and segregation was a nonviolent resistance to evil and injustice. He was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968. I was almost two years old. My dad shares a disturbing story about that day fifty-one years ago. He was a Methodist pastor in the Western North Carolina Mountains, and that evening he was helping out with an event at the town’s community center. Someone burst into the room with the announcement that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. My dad was stunned, and then his shock turned to horror and disbelief as the community center erupted in applause and celebration. How can one even begin to understand that kind of behavior?
I am participating in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge, which involves a commitment to spend fifteen minutes each day for twenty-one days reading articles or watching videos on the subject of race relations. On day one, participants were invited to complete a racial-ethnic identity worksheet. I was asked, “What is the first memory you have of being aware of racism at the personal, institutional or cultural levels?”
A few months after Dr. King’s assassination, my parents moved to Palembang, Indonesia. I imagine some racist stuff happened (my brother and I were the only white kids on our street), but my two-year-old awareness was mostly focused on toys and food. My first memory of being different was one day at school when my kindergarten teachers and classmates were all laughing at me. I had no idea why they were making fun of me. I put my head on the desk and cried for the rest of the day. But the trouble, whatever it was, didn’t linger for long. It’s my only bad memory from those days. I made lots of friends, and we played together in the sandbox that wrapped around the entire room. It was sweet.
We moved to Cherokee when I was eleven. I remember playing in the front yard of the church. We needed a captain, so we circled up and held our fists in the middle. It was a diverse circle of friends—Caucasian, African American, and Cherokee. I was the caller and started bumping fists with, “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.” I really don’t understand how this happened, but I almost said the n-word! I said, “Catch a n…,” and then pathetically redirected to, “Catch a Tigger by the toe.” My face turned red and I felt like I was going to throw up. Nobody seemed to notice, but I was painfully aware that something was wrong with me. A blind spot that I could neither see nor understand. Where did that come from? Certainly not from Mom and Dad. Our life together as a family had always been marked by love and respect for all people. Being one of only a few white students at the Cherokee High School, I experienced my share of racist comments and violence. But none of those memories disturbs me like the one from that day in the churchyard.
The racial identity worksheet question makes me wonder what else might be lurking beneath the surface—makes me wonder about the blind spots we have with those who are different from us. So I’ve decided to lead a racial equity small group. I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I know that our tendencies toward isolation only make matters worse. I wonder what might happen if we simply get together and listen to each other. I wonder if our stories will help us to see; if our friendships will bring light into shadows of misunderstanding. Dr. King believed we are better together, and I believe that too. An assassin’s bullet ended his life fifty-one years ago today, but it did not end his dream—not if you and I will dream it too, and have the courage to get in the same room.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.