I know the answer to the question, “Where were you on the day JFK was shot?” I was getting ready to leave my fourth grade classroom with Mrs. Hoffman and my classmates at Jackson Elementary School in Ohio to head home from a day of student toil. The announcement came from the principal over the brown, wooden, high gloss varnished loud speaker box that hung above the chalkboard in every classroom. That speaker was there for daily announcements that all little kids needed to know (like what’s for lunch), and for sharing important announcements (like parent teacher conferences) or the siren that occasionally blared ‘telling’ us to hurry to the bomb shelters to practice our nuclear holocaust drills.
I grew up in a sea of change in the United States from 1954 to my high school graduation in 1973. I didn’t know how turbulent the times where. It is only in retrospect that we learn the lessons of our lives and the power of those days unfolding around us.
These years carried many national events that changed this country and the world. In 1960, American advisers were sent to South Vietnam and would be followed by US troops in 1965. In 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin becomes the first man to orbit Earth in a spacecraft and the race was on toward the heavens. Kennedy was shot in 1963. The first men landed on the moon in 1969 (I was in Washington DC that night at my mom’s relative Joyce’s house while we were on family vacation; the landing beaming at us from the Black and White TV set), and Woodstock drew 400,000 people to experience flower power and love. In 1970, Ohio National Guard soldiers fired on (and killed) Kent State University students protesting against the US invasion of Cambodia (just a stone’s throw from my home and where my mother graduated from college) and Vietnam ended for the US in 1973 (and I was thankful as a high school senior since my selective service draft number was in the top ten to go to Southeast Asia to serve in an unpopular war).
But there was a part of my life I didn’t know anything about growing up in an all white world. I didn’t really understand the civil rights movement. It was happening around me, but I was not paying attention to it because of school, football, girls, and well, girls. There were society altering events going on like the Jobs and Freedom March on Washington in 1963, the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Except for Kennedy’s death, the social plight of my fellow Americans went undetected by me as I tried to make sense of a white teenager’s life.
I sit now, at another point in my life….where the world has converged and I have chosen to know that history of the civil rights and the freedoms sought and fought for by my African American brothers and sisters. It was sparked by my now 18 year old biracial African American daughter when she was only 5 years old. We were coloring a picture one day after a preschool lesson on MLK when she said, “Martin Luther King was a great man.” “Yes,” I replied…”a very great man,” figuring this had been the subject of some preschool celebration. “I am glad he worked hard,” she continued. “Yes,” I replied as we filled in the lines of the picture. “I am glad he lived so I could not be afraid and be free.” That statement from my brown skinned African American daughter startled me. At five, she had connected with a time in history I knew nothing about because she already, somehow, identified with the skin tone of MLK and what he preached 30 years before her birth. Tears began softly rolling down my cheeks. “Yes,” I said…”you don’t have to be afraid and you are free.” That exchange over a box of Crayola Crayons changed my life and brought me fully into the time I had overlooked as a young man growing up in a world I did not really understand.
I have chosen these last 13 years to honor MLK day, not just on that day alone, but by reading books written by African Americans, and trying to understand this time in the history of our nation (and world). I try to understand this world from the perspective of my African American son-in-law for the sake of him and for my biracial grandsons. And I choose to consider this for my 18 year old daughter who is “free and does not need to be afraid.” I need to protect that for her and others intentionally….not simply by chance.
So on this day, I invite you to begin by watching the “I Have a Dream” speech of MLK from August 1963 in Washington DC. These 17 minutes are an important place to start. The speech of Martin Luther King Jr., is essential for us all. As he says in it “our destinies and freedom are intertwined.” It is a truth I missed long ago, which I will not miss again.
Blessings to you for this day. Grace and peace as you more fully come to understand the fullest meaning of our Declaration of Independence when our fore bearers wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” July 4, 1776