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Monday, January 16, 2006

A White Response to MLK Day

Over the years I have come to see MLK Holiday as a black holiday, one in which people who know more about race relations than I contemplate the life of this remarkable man. I suspect that I am not alone among my white friends in having an attitude that has ranged from ambivalence to respect for something I am not supposed to understand.

But in giving more thought to the life of Martin Luther King Jr. I have realized that the last thing I should do is ignore the words of this man. And I have realized that he was speaking just as much to me as he was any black man.

"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."
I grew up in suburban Atlanta in DeKalb County. In 1969 a lawsuit was brought against the school system alleging institutionalized segregation in the system; that is, a separate system of white schools and black schools. In 1976, the federal courts ordered DeKalb County to start its "Majority to Minority" busing program. This program allowed black students in majority black schools to transfer to majority white schools. My high school was one of those that many black students transferred to.

Unlike most school systems, we had neither junior high schools nor middle schools. As a result students went directly from elementary school to high school in 8th grade. Starting 8th grade could be a very trying experience for a number of reasons; being in a school with such older kids, meeting a lot of new kids, and with the new busing program, being in a school with a much greater racial diversity than many of us had been accustomed to.

I'll never forget starting that year at school and finding myself as the only white guy at my lunch table. The funny thing was that very quickly I referred to these guys as my friends, not my "black friends". Over time I didn't give much thought as to whether they were black or Asian or Hispanic. This isn't to say that there wasn't any racial tension at my school. But I think of this experience when I read MLK's words about "sitting down together at the table of brotherhood".
I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
After graduating from high school, I attended college at Auburn University in Alabama. One of the first things I noticed when I went there was how very white it was. I have no idea if this was because of racism or because there were some very prominent Historically Black Colleges (HBC) nearby such as Tuskeegee, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman. But I did notice the difference and felt that something was missing. I wasn't one of these white kids who are obsessed with black culture; it just felt strange hanging out with mostly white people. So I ended up joining the gospel choir and becoming the only white member there. I'm not sure if that was part of MLK's dream for Alabama but I'd like to think that it was.

Over the years since college, I have had a variety of experiences making friends with people of other races. I have developed some good friendships with black guys that I have worked with including one who invited me out to his family's BBQ in the country. But one fact has remained the same through all these relationships and friendships: my high regard for each of these people has had nothing to do with whether they were black but had everything to do with them being good people.

I think that this is what MLK meant when he talked about a color-blind society. I couldn't disagree more with those who say that we should lift up those distinct elements of each race or culture. Better to lift up and honor those distinctly human and God-given parts of each of us.
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South."