Like all holidays, however, there is a deeper meaning that is often overlooked. The holiday is a day set aside to honor and remember a man who stood tall in an uncertain time, who helped bring about great and much-needed change. And, it is a day to celebrate those changes which have occurred.
I have to admit I didn’t often think so fondly of Martin Luther King Day. I didn’t necessarily have anything against such a holiday, it just didn’t mean anything to me. There was no emotional or intellectual resonance with me.
That changed a number of years ago, when I was working in the Northern Neck of Virginia, a tiny slip of land that is bounded by the Chesapeake Bay and the Rappahannock and Potomac rivers.
At the tender age of 27 I had just taken on my first editor’s gig, running a tiny weekly serving the community there. The company I worked for annually gave out scholarships to a high school senior in each of the communities where it owned newspapers. The editor whose post I was taking had done nothing on the scholarship, so I was already behind schedule on day one. My first task was to line up a committee of area residents who would ultimately make the decision. I managed to get the president of the local bank, the owner of a local business, and for the third member someone pointed me in the direction of a retiree and member of the county board of supervisors, a man who had grown up in the area, moved on to Baltimore where he spent a career as an educator and school administrator before returning to his home for retirement.
Sounded good to me. I called and he accepted. A few days later I met the man, who turned out to be black. I took no special notice of that fact because I had the good fortune to be raised in an environment where a person’s race made absolutely no difference.
I met with each of the committee members, explained the process and gave them the date we would gather to review the applicants.
The appointed day and time came, with the business owner and banker there, but the retired educator was no where to be found. Five minutes passed. Then ten. After fifteen minutes I called, but could not reach the man. We proceeded with the selection process and that night I called him to see what had happened.
He replied that the committee was not scheduled to meet for another two days. When I said we had, in fact, met earlier that day, he told me I had given him the wrong date. I checked my notes and knew I had not, and I tactfully explained I was fairly certain I had told him the correct date, but I apologized for any misunderstanding all the same.
Then he came back with this: “You did this because I’m black, didn’t you?”
The question floored me. I didn’t know what to say, because no one had ever accused me of such a thing in all of my 27 years. After taking a few seconds to collect my thoughts, I assured the man that was not the case, that such an idea had never entered my mind.
He would not be dissuaded. He told me in no uncertain terms he absolutely knew I had done this to him solely because he was black, that white people had treated him like this all his life and he was absolutely not going to stand for me doing this to him.
I tried to assure the man he was wrong, but he would not accept any explanation other than I was white, therefor I must be racist.
After our telephone call ended I didn’t know what to do. Should I call my boss and let him know? Should I write the man a letter of apology, explaining that I was certain I had given him the correct date but, if I had, in fact, been mistaken that it was truly an accident?
Twenty minutes later the phone rang. I answered, and it was this gentlemen, calling to apologize to me because after checking his calendar he had, in fact, realized I had given him the correct meeting date.
For some time afterward I held this man in little regard. I thought he must be a racist to immediately assume I had treated him poorly because he was black. I had never done anything of the sort, never even thought of doing it, and quite frankly I was angry he had made an assumption about me based only on the fact I was white.
One night a few weeks later, though, something dawned on me. This man had been treated like that — in far worse ways — his entire life. This incident occurred in 1991, and the man was in his early 60s at the time, so he was born in the early 1930s. All those discriminations and indignities Martin Luther King fought against — denied the right to vote, forced school segregation, being banned from restaurants and other public places, uneven and sometimes non-existent protection from the law, all based only on the color of your skin — this man has experienced that through his life.
Once that realization dawned on me I no longer held this man in low regard. On the contrary, I wondered if I had been forced to live through such experiences, would I have had the drive to succeed in life as he did? Would I have stayed in school, attended college, had the long career in education this man enjoyed?
When I was growing up stories of World War II and Hitler, of the Revolutionary War and the early settlement of America, of the development of ancient societies all seemed to mingle in my mind together as things that happened before my birth. I understood World War II happened a scant two decades before I was born, while Alexander the Great led the Greek Empire thousands of years before my time. Yet it was all lumped together in the before birth category, events I could only imagine because I had no connection to them.
Today I don’t believe anyone under the age of 30 really understands what it was like to live during the time before the Civil Rights movement. My own children can’t imagine how anyone could be hated or mistreated solely because of the color of his skin any more than I could, as a child, understand why Britain and France fought on the soil of that wild and untamed land which would eventually become America. It is a foreign concept to them, as I believe it is to many who have been born over the past three decades.
While our society still struggles with race relations, and probably always will, we have reached the point we are at today in large part because of the efforts of King and others like him. Martin Luther King wasn’t perfect. Far from it. He was simply a man, susceptible to all the weaknesses and flaws that all men and women are susceptible to. Then again, so where the founding fathers of America, yet today we celebrate them for rising above those flaws for something greater than themselves.
King did the same thing. He rejected violence advocated by many at the time, led peaceful protests, demanding simply that all people be treated with the dignity, respect, and fairness supposedly guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution.
He and his efforts should be celebrated by all Americans, regardless of race or background.