The rumor spread down Flagler Street with a sense of urgency. Miami was a city of rumors, each of us trying to stay ahead of the latest in unrest. There was a way these things came through, a procedure. It came to me in broken Spanglish, filling the pause between the order of Café Cubano and the exchange of money. “They found the shadows yesterday. I think they’ll just leave it.” I wasn’t sure exactly what they were talking about, but I knew it was exciting. “It was the old Colored fountain.” What?
At lunch I made it down to Burdines to see it for myself. The first floor had fashionable Guayaberas and men’s suits up in front, and in the back a crowd. I made my way back to find a stillness, a solemn hush as if the speed of the rumor left a vacuum behind. Wending through the crowded moment I was able to see it:
Workmen had taken down a partition and found on the wall behind that word in faded black stencil, down and to the right of the word WHITE. The outline of plumbing long disconnected ran underneath the words and gave them a meaning, a purpose told in the larger unit for whites and the tiny receptacle for colored.
The force of this quiet scene was what kept the crowd quiet, shoving language back inside with a hard swallow. The times, long ago, really did go down like this. It really did happen this way. All those stories, they were true. It wasn’t as though we doubted how it went down, it was simply so far outside of what we could possibly understand. But here it was, the shadows of that era, still on the wall.
I looked around and noticed something else strange about that moment. I shared it with people who were mostly my age, about 20, that day in 1986. I did my best to spread the rumor, in the culturally require way, but when I told older people they didn’t particularly care. They’d seen this, after all. Those of us who had never seen it before were the ones who wanted to.
Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.
On this special Martin Luther King Day, the day before we see another dream realized, we have a complicated mix of emotions. There is a party going on in Washington, a celebration of the now obvious fact that all this time we weren’t kidding about opportunity for all. Dr King didn’t make it to the Promised Land himself, but he pointed us the way. How can we honor him without at least acknowledging the oppression he was struggling against?
That’s the problem, after all. Our world has changed, changed to be much more like the dream he told us about before I was even born. I was lucky enough to have seen the shadows on the wall, the remnants of that terrible time, so I know what the arc of my life has brought. It’s been pretty good, after all.
The shadows may haunt those who are a bit older than I am, but see them as nothing more than shadows. I’m glad to have seen them because the force of their presence burned into my memory is humbling. Those old stories are true. It really did go down that way.
More importantly, we got where we did because people made it happen. Without that, understanding the scope of our progress, from shadows to ballots to the next wave of empowerment, Lord help us, it was all a terrible struggle. But it was worth it.
Thank you, Dr. King.
I agree we have come far but we need to remember we have a way yet to go. As a 7 year old I lived in a Detroit tenament in the middle of the riots. People died, property was destroyed and armed soldiers walked the streets. It made our RNC experience look like a tea party.
We no longer have open racism on a large scale, no white/colored signage yet real equality still evades us.
Those of color in America on average get paid less, have fewer opprotunities for higher education, have shorter life expectancies and are more likely to go to jail. You can still see self segregation as people gather in different venues.
Dr. King had a dream of people seeing each other based on the “content of thier character.” My childrens generation is far less concerned about difference then was mine and hopefully that trend moves ever forward. However fear, envy, greed and hate will never be far from the surface. We must therefore pledge to be vigilant and work openly for respect of differences. Let us each live our lives peacefully respecting other, beliefs and rights and demanding others do the same for us.
Tuesday America steps closer to Dr. Kings promised land and we can and must be proud of our Nation. Let us celebrate and hug and cheer with everyone around us. Let us look to empower those who are on the fringes of power and let us truly “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Thank you for this great piece you keep me thinking and challenged and I appreciate it. Enjoy Martin Luther King day and the Inauguration of President Barack Obama.
A great addition, Brian.
It was hard to come up with the right thing to say at this point, because we have come so far and yet have so much to do. If we learned anything from Dr. King, it’s that hard work and a commitment to empower the powerless has rewards we can hardly imagine.
But today, I think, we can see how far it has taken us. That is the faith that the dark past has taught us; that is the hope that the future has promised.
Let’s keep marching on!
Well said my friend, Keep us all thinking and pondering the larger truths that can and must draw us all ever closer to Dr. Kings vision of America.
It helps us continue doing the work / stay in the struggle, when we can see that past work has brought change. The dialectic works. Hope and gratitude for change keep me from giving up completely and squandering any opportunity for the dream.
People made it happen, lots of people who cared enough to sacrifice and come together around a cause. I hope Obama can inspire us to continue the hard fight, to renew our energy when we grow weary of difficult challenges. Yes we can!
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