Race is the one thing that has bedeviled America from the very beginning. The promise of a truly equitable and free people has always been an intellectual exercise, separated off in the mind of great thinkers like Thomas Jefferson from the obvious but emotionally difficult reality of slavery and separation by race. Equality under the law is somehow separate and not equal to equality in culture and the reality of everyday life.
Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday is as good a day as any to look back and see what progress we’ve made over the last year. It looks pretty bleak all around. Black America is still separate and in far too many ways not equal. Economic and social change has created a vocal backlash of whites, afraid and angry, who lash out at the very idea that progress towards a united and free society is even desirable.
But there is hope – because at least we are starting to talk about the problem.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.“
– The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At this time every year we have the same kind of conversation around the dinner table. My kids are growing up in a different world, one even more thoroughly defined by the struggles and triumphs of Dr. King’s generation than mine was.
But as they grow older, they see the work left to do more plainly. It is disheartening and difficult to watch those who once thought that the old black and white news film of dogs and firehoses was a document of a black and white history – a story of races and realities laid bare for history to pass its judgement. Now that they are in school they’ve seen and heard what racism is. The struggle is still alive, and every year more than just black and white.
This is a story I like to tell, and it seems appropriate on Dr. King Day. It’s hard for those of us too young to remember “how it was” to understand the progress we have made – and how important Dr. King’s legacy is.
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?