As an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I braved a cold January 15th morning to march to the Atlanta capital for creation of a holiday honoring Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I was elated when the legislation passed, and the first holiday was celebrated.
I never met Dr. King but as a child of the 60s he was/is a part of me. In my home there was a picture of the King family, Dr. King by himself, him with other leaders, conversations about his ongoing work, even community people who had joined him in 1963 at the March on Washington.
We, meaning the people who taught me that color is not what determines whether someone is good or bad, loved Dr. King and believed he was America’s greatest hope. I clearly remember the anguish we felt that April afternoon he was gunned down in nearby Memphis.
The quiet weeping and stunned silence that engulfed our community signaled everything had changed with the death of this “good man,” as one neighbor described him.
In preparation for an internship at his childhood home in Atlanta I was assigned a reading list that seemed to include everything that had ever been written about MLK. I loved learning about his boyhood and regaling Park Service visitors with his stories and antics.
One story stuck with me—his preacher/father took him downtown to buy shoes, but the clerk didn’t treat his father with dignity and respect like the parishioners did. When he asked why, his father gave his first lesson on racism and segregation, but thankfully included this missive: “Son, don’t let them (racists) make you hate.”
That lesson remains with me today as I see hate and anger distort and color our world. This week’s holiday reminds us that we can do better and even if we don’t reach perfection, we must keep trying. Here are a few reminders:
(1) Treat each person, whether you agree with them or not, with dignity and respect. We all have worth, and “stuff” is not what defines us. As we’ve seen with recent tornadoes, flooding, and other disasters, when our neighbors and friends have lost everything, the broken hearts and dreams underneath the rubble are the same color.
(2) When you lend a hand, one comes back to you. During the Buffalo, NY Christmas blizzard a young African American woman saw an older Caucasian man outside in the cold. She brought him inside and cared for his frostbitten limbs and didn’t rest until she got the help he needed. Our neighbors are nearby, at the border, and around the world, and they come in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
(3) Speak up. When you hear mean spirited stereotypes and myths, say something. You probably won’t be too popular at gatherings, but you can sleep in peace knowing you have not let lies and distortions fester and grow.
(4) Billed as “a day on, not a day off,” make this holiday your last one as an observer. Look around your community and don’t just see the need, do something about it. My precious late husband, Roger, always led our congregations to be in ministry all year—not just at Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Help sort and organize clothes at the neighborhood closet—better yet, clean out your closet and share some of your favorite pieces instead of that butter-colored leisure suit you saved from 1971, in case it came back in style. Trust me, it ain’t coming back and if it does, you won’t want to be caught dead in it.
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