A Lifetime Of Changes

Today I was reading one of the more remarkable documents in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. It is notable for its power, its clarity, and the moving images and emotions that it evokes.

It was written in April of 1963. At the time, I was a junior in High School (year 11), and I worked evenings for a newspaper, the Redding Record-Searchlight, that I read avidly. Because of my grandmother, the Captain’s daughter, our family has always been 100% for full, total, and unquestioned racial equality. So I was rooting for the civil rights marchers and wishing I was there.

But today was the first time I ever read Dr. King’s letter. In one part of it, he listed the injustices that led to him breaking the law and ending up in jail. It was such a vivid description of the state of US laws and customs in my own childhood and the pervasive unnoticed racism of the time that I wanted to compare it to the current situation. This is the change that I have lived through in my lifetime. I’ve put Dr. King’s words in quotes, and inset my own, to give his words the prominence they deserve.

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.

Due to the efforts of Dr. King, Representative John Lewis, and the collective will of the people of the US, the issue of getting service at any lunch counter anywhere in America is done. Over. Not even a blip on the horizon, unless it is someone losing their mind and suing some poor Christian baker who doesn’t do gay weddings.

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim;

While this is one of the most repulsive facts of American history, it is now firmly part of American history. Yes, there will always be individual examples of race hatred on both sides … but that time of widespread lynchings is over forever.

when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters;

Mmmm … still a ways to go on this one. We no longer have the kind of organized mob-like police violence with clubs and dogs. And in 2000 when H. Rap Brown of the original Black Panthers was arrested in Georgia after a police shootout in which he killed one deputy sheriff and wounded one deputy sheriff, it was announced by the Atlanta Chief of Police. As someone who was involved in the late 1960’s in the “Movement” as it was called back then, and who was living in the San Francisco Bay Area when the Panthers were originally formed there, I remember laughing when I read about his arrest in the newspaper. Why? Because both deputy sheriffs that he shot were black … and the Atlanta Chief of Police who announced the news was a black woman named Beverly Harvard. I thought, it’s not the same Oakland Police that he fought against back in the day, we’re not in Kansas any more …

Having said that, this is one where there is still “miles to go before we sleep”. We definitely need to improve relations with our police forces, who do a thankless and incredibly necessary job. The recent demonization of the police is quite concerning. We need to be going the other direction.

when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society;

This one is difficult. Most barriers to black people making money are down and gone. There are lots of black millionaires, and there are wealthy black leaders in all areas of life. While more subtle racism remains, it is a different and infinitely better world economically for people of all colors.

But on the other hand, the wealth of the median black family, which was never all that great, went steadily down under Obama.

The rules of poverty are simple. If you want to avoid poverty you need to do three simple things:

Finish high school (year 12)

Don’t have kids until you are married.

Find full-time work of any kind.

If you do those three things, you only have a 2% chance of being in poverty. And the requirements are color-blind. White people who break those rules end up in poverty at just the same rate as black people who break those rules.

Now, there still are more overt racists in the US, although the numbers are diminishing, mostly one death at a time.

And even absent that, there is still subtle racism in the US. In many hiring situations, the person making the decision is white. And whatever color you are, if other things are equal you are bound to be somewhat biased towards people who look like you. We’re hardwired that way—to trust those who look like us, starting with the people who look the most like us, our own families, and working outward in decreasing circles of trust from there.

That means if you’re an average black guy, to get hired you’re going to have to be better or faster or slicker than the average white guy … but fortunately, that’s not all that hard. However, sadly the threshold remains higher for people of color. More work to do.

when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people;

Today every public amusement park and every Funtown in the US is open to people of all colors. That one at least is dead and buried.

when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”;

There are two answers to this question. One is that in large measure this refers to institutional racism, which at this point is pretty much history, good riddance.

Next, meanness. Sadly, white people treat white people mean. Black people treat black people mean. Look at murder rates. White people predominantly kill white people. Black people predominantly kill black people. The ugly truth is, people treat people mean, and that part is much harder to solve.

Finally, white racists treat all black people mean because they are black. And black racists treat all white people mean because they are white. 

That part we can all condemn and strive to end.

when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you;

Thanks in large measure to Dr. King, that is totally a thing of the past.

when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”;

History. Done. Over.

when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”;

Dr. King might be surprised that the “n-word” cannot now be uttered in any context except, interestingly, by black people. It’s a curious situation where a word was so misused by white people that black people successfully claimed exclusive ownership of the word. Pretty amazing, I can’t think of any other group being able to do that, claim a word as their own.

Regarding his wife and mother never being called “Mrs”, that is a heartbreaking reminder of just how far we’ve come.

when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments;

This is another one where we are better but we have miles to go …

when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

mlk-2

=======================

I can only describe that as one of the most moving and heartfelt pieces of writing I can imagine. And I can only toast the amazing achievement of Dr. King and the great American Civil Rights Movement—at last, after 340 years, the waiting was finally over. The days of institutional racism, the days of “separate but equal” that was separate and highly unequal, those days are now dead and buried.

How far have we come? This might best be measured by the one fact that Dr. King couldn’t afford to say a single word about, the “third rail” of the civil rights movement of the time. (A “third rail” is a metaphor taken from electric railways, where the third rail carries thousands of volts and touching it is certain death).

This third rail of the time was the question of interracial marriage. Here’s a fact most folks don’t know. In 1947, the year I was born, interracial marriage was illegal in over 60% of the US states.

Illegal in a large majority of the USA! And now, interracial marriage is legal not only in the US but around the world as far as South Africa, and in many places it is so common as to hardly invite comment.

Now, is racism dead in the US? No way! There will always be hoons, there will always be racists of all colors. There are some white people who believe all kinds of untrue stuff about black people … and some black people who do the same regarding whites.

And unfortunately, in the US there remain a host of small barriers and subtle slights and minor insults that are faced by people of color which are not faced by myself and other white people. Those who don’t face those barriers and slights need to acknowledge them and understand what a lifetime of that can do. The scars caused by ten thousand tiny cuts can be large indeed.

So there is much to work on. But on this MLK Day, we should start by acknowledging just how far we’ve come as a nation toward Dr. King’s dream. We have a ways to go, but thanks to black and white people across the nation, both leaders and citizens alike, we’ve made institutional racism in all of its forms illegal in the US in all parts of our lives from restaurants and parks and water fountains to the Presidency. Doesn’t mean racism is gone … but it is assuredly against the law.

Best to all of my friends of all colors on a day of hope, read Dr. King’s letter, it’s inspiring.

w.

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38 thoughts on “A Lifetime Of Changes

  1. FTA: “Finally, white racists treat all black people mean because they are black. And black racists treat all black people mean because they are white.”

    The second sentence seems incorrect. Shouldn’t it be “And black racists treat all WHITE people…?(all caps for italics not shouting).

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  2. Regarding his wife and mother never being called “Mrs”, that is a heartbreaking reminder of just how far we’ve come.

    That’s still a problem today. People no loner teach their children to address their elders as Mr. or Mrs. And we no longer address business associates, social acquaintances, and nodding-basis neighbors with the respectful addresses, regardless of race. I do believe that small courtesy (and others long since abandoned) would go a long way towards elevating relationships between all Americans.

    This third rail of the time was the question of interracial marriage. Here’s a fact most folks don’t know. In 1947, the year I was born, interracial marriage was illegal in over 60% of the US states.

    I’ve personally experienced negative repercussions from people who held the beliefs behind those laws; on three occasions. (I type twice as fast when I use two fingers, so I won’t go into the details unless pressed.)

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  3. Nice read Willis. I had not read that either, but glad you shared it. It was enlightening as was MLK.

    I wonder how he would perceive the antics of some of today’s recent movements……

    I have a very diverse group of friends from many varied religions, races, etc.. I have asked them all the same question over the last year. Are things better for anyone today as opposed to 8 years ago? None of them were able to identify any item from race relations, to liberties, to economics or healthcare etc., that was better . That speaks volumes to me. Most of them felt oppressed in one way or another, for one reason or another, from our current governing body. That is just not right in my eyes.

    4 more days

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    • If a person had money in stocks in recent years then they are $$ better than 8 years ago. [Ignore 2008; B.O. became POTUS in January 2009.] Of course most folks did not benefit, or not much, from the policies that brought that about. Further, many sold stocks or bought over priced houses back then and either caused a loss of wealth.
      This proves only that you have no friends that owned stocks in 2009 and held them, or you have yet to ask them.

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      • Point noted, however, most who who were in the market at that point in 2009 suffered sever losses and the market simply came back for them to an extent. If you started fresh, you did well, but those are far and few between. The underlying concern with the stock market for most should be why is it so high? There are no legs under it aside from capital flight out of the EU and Asia due to instability and the cost of socialism in many areas, and zero cost of money for years to corporate and institutional investors. Generally speaking, not many are better off than in 2009 from most perspectives. Wages and jobs (remember if you have 3 part time Jobs those are counted as 3 different people employed by the BLS etc.) are stagnate and costs are still rising. Take a peek at the participation rate for the US. Savings gets virtually no interest, so folks take on risk. The average Joe feels it most. I understand the point you try to make, but only a virgin investor in 2009 made great strides. Most just caught up and finally passed their losses in the market after 8 years. Cheers!

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      • The national debt increased under Obama by $7.9 trillion. That’s about $25,000 per person including children (who will have to pay for it). I did not notice my $25,000 coming. I assume most of it got into deep pockets of Mr. Soros and his friends. They have a lot of philanthropy to do.

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  4. My husband has a English/Writing book from college, and this letter is in the back (right after the Declaration of Independence). I will require my children to read it before they graduate (we homeschool – my kids will also read George Washington’s Farewell Address). Understanding injustice and when it is right to break the law for injustice is important. Dr. King had a firm grasp.

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  5. Great article, Willis. On a personal note about race relations, I wish to thank my dad. In 1957, dad was the Seattle U basketball team physician. Elgin Baylor became the first black to play for SU. As was dad’s custom, he would invite the players into our home. The players always would goof with us kids and Elgin goofed around with us like the rest. Elgin was treated no differently by my folks (although he had a star status with us kids that wouldn’t quit). I remember him as being a real gentleman with us and he taught me the fingertip technique of one-handed shooting (prior to this, the two-handed set shot was the norm). At the time, I was wholly unaware that there was any hint of controversy of having a black man on the team. A few years later as a teen, I became aware of the controversy during a dinner table conversation and I have never forgotten my dad’s line, “We all bleed the same color”. Anti-bigotry starts at home.

    For younger readers not aware of Baylor, he went on to the NBA and held scoring records for years. I believe he is still in the top ten lists. He came to a recognition dinner, which SU gave my dad many years later, and had some really nice things to say about dad.

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  6. I so enjoy your website, subjects, thoughtfulness, insight, stories, humor, insight, wisdom, clarity and love your use of “former fiancee”. I want to compliment you by copying as often as possible. You could say, I am a fan.

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  7. I think you missed so much of that letter:
    “My Dear Fellow Clergymen”
    he was writing to Christians…

    “..so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town..”
    he saw himself as a missionary (of sorts)

    “..A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God..”
    we seem to have forgotten that, we think the law of God is, irrelevant?

    “..my Christian and Jewish brothers..”
    most of campus America would not call the Jewish their brothers

    “..Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God..”
    and not an evolutionary by product of continuous improvement.

    “..great stumbling block…the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice..”
    still the same

    “..through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle..”
    vary important, but forgotten source of motivation and method?

    “..It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement..”
    history repeating?

    “..I say this as a minister of the gospel..”
    why do people not mention this when they talk about the great MLK?

    “..all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows..”
    Churches still seem to care too much about the opinions of man than of God.

    “..In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society..”
    preach it brother.

    “..So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are..”
    not all the Church was with him – but that’s no reason to ignore it entirely.

    “..the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands..”
    there’s that God is important thing again.

    “..in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judaeo Christian heritage..”
    forgotten our heritage… it’s all secular now..

    “..a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother..”
    so much, so forgotten

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    • Thanks for the further exploration of the letter, CommonA. However, your claim that I “missed so much” because I didn’t focus on Yahweh is a misreading of the situation, and it is an unpleasant accusation. It’s not a surprise, I guess. It’s a common theme in Christianity that those of us who are not Christians are “missing” something.

      It might surprise you to find that starting out by telling people that they “missed so much” might not go over all that well. It’s just another version of the ideas underlying “Brother, have you heard the Good News of Jesus Christ?” … with the assumption that somehow I got through seven decades and missed that detail …

      Well, yes, CommonA, I’ve heard the good news. By and large we’ve all heard the good news dozens and dozens of times. And I may even know more about the good news than you do—odds are I’ve been to services in more churches of more different denominations and more different religions than you ever will. What was it that you think I missed?

      just saying, next time, you might want to start off by not insulting your host.

      So no, I’m not missing anything. I am not writing an exhaustive PhD thesis level analysis of the letter. As is my custom, I wrote about a single subject, which in this case was the change I’ve seen in the racial relationships in the US.

      Now, was this what you would have written about? Obviously not. You want to talk about God. Fine.

      Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to those who wish to focus the study of MLK Jr. on his religion and on his Christian God. You can go for it, I encourage all opinions, and you are correct that his religion is a key to understanding MLK. My blog is a place where freedom of speech is worshipped.

      But please … don’t claim that I’m missing something just because I don’t focus on what you want to be in the spotlight.

      Best regards,

      w.

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      • Willis, you are correct in my life focus and filters, but I wasn’t trying to change the subject, nor save your soul. Just trying to point out that so often when I hear of MLK his faith is whitewashed out of it. When as far as I can see, it was the origin and guiding light of his methods. And it was in Christian circles that he expected (but not always received) help; because he was doing God’s work. People seem to cherry pick the good things from Godly lives and think they can have one without the other, which I think is a mistake.

        Anti-Jewish racism and Muslim militancy appear to be on the rise…. so where is the modern day MLK as the antidote? Why do people identify as African-Americans, rather than just Americans? Have we really learned anything?

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  8. Seems to me the main problem now is a widespread refusal of the black community to embrace MLK’s dream. They remain stubbornly mired in their “black consciousness”.

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    • Mmmm … I think you might be mistaking the ideas of the mass of black people for the ideas of racist gasbags like Al Sharpton who have hogged the limelight. Tawana Brawley, to her credit, has finally begun paying the civil penalty for her lies … but Sharpton has never apologized for his part in that.

      But heck, Al is the only American political figure who has ever successfully organized an anti-Jewish pogrom, so we should not expect humane behavior from him.

      w.

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  9. “How far have we come”

    I go about my life and don’t give a second thought to the black person I’m conversing with at the coffee shop or the black people at the Wal-mart where I shop…

    The best remedy is to stop talking about it. Get on with your lives.

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    • Mmmm … thanks for the thoughts, Duke. I’d say yes and no. In daily life as you point out, absolutely we should stop talking about it and get on with life.

      However, we don’t want to repeat the errors of the past, and one way to repeat them is to forget about them, to stop talking about them.

      We also are not done with the work of ending racism. You might want (or not want) to turn over some rocks on the intarwebs. The overt, unabashed, in your face and proud racists will turn your stomach. And sadly, the effects of slavery extend for many generations after the end of slavery.

      So that challenge still remains, and to meet it we need to acknowledge that racism still exists and point it out where it intersects with our lives. When I happen across it, my usual rejoinder is “Hey, man, you’re talking about my friends, and they’re not like you think.”

      Anyhow, thanks for commenting,

      w.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “And now, interracial marriage is legal not only in the US but around the world as far as South Africa”: that’s an odd way to phrase it. Interracial marriage was already legal around the world, except for odd places like South Africa and the USA.

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  11. Thank you, Willis. One of my few, but very proud, achievements in life was to raise a son who has no hint of racism in his being. As a product of my time, I can’t say that for myself, though I don’t overtly commit racist acts. I have friends of all races and nationalities but find myself, in moments of stress or anger, thinking or saying epithets and insults which should not be part of me. What a testament to his faith and his instilled character is this letter from a man who truly lived out his love and concern for others.

    pbh

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    • Thanks, Paul. As I said in the head post, I had the immense good fortune to grow up in a household where racial equality was an unquestioned fact. So I give you big props, first for recognizing the cost in your own life, and second for breaking the cycle regarding your son.

      Well done, that man!

      w.

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  12. A great article. As a rather recent U.S. citizen, I noticed that the “people of color” in this letter means almost exclusively “blacks”. There are also Latinos, Chinese, Indians, and Japanese who don’t seem to suffer that much. The widespread poverty seems to be limited to African American and Native American communities. It almost looks like the word “American” attracts a curse. A friend met three happy-looking black people in San Francisco and asked: Are you from Africa? Yes, Nigeria.

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  13. Very nice, thank you for the insight into American history.From afar, it looks as it’s much better than in the sixties, but probably worse than it was in the eighties or nineties.
    I wonder where the political climate is going. We need models!

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  14. Very nicely done!

    I just hope you don’t run afoul of the King Family over this. They are known for very zealously protecting their property rights with regard to anything that was ever “created” by Dr. King. They have prevailed with very narrow interpretations of what constitutes “fair use”. The royalties and settlements have lined their pockets quite well, I think.

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  15. With my future wife and her mother, we drove from Atlanta area to Savannah — 1968, I think. A gas station along the route had keys #1, #2, #3 for three restrooms. I grabbed a key — not #1 — and started outside. The owner said — Put that back and take #1. I asked. He explained. Future Mother-in Law got me ought of there in short order. I grew up in an all-white small northern town — what did I know?
    A couple of years later the 2 of us went with a group of Georgia State biology students to the Okefenokee Swamp to watch wildlife during and eclipse. There were a dozen or so, all of us white except for 2 young ladies. The group stayed overnight in Waycross and went to a restaurant for dinner. Some folks from the town noticed and fluttered about but there was no trouble.
    [Just before MLK was shot, we had taken a car to an Atlanta repair shop and expected to get it back the next afternoon. That didn’t happen. Three or 4 days later we went and retrieved it.
    At another time, we drove through much of what are now historical places. A nice group of guys were using the radiator (still in) of an old car to distill something. We waved but they didn’t offer to share.]]

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  16. As it happens, I’m reading the exact part of “Edge of Eternity” by Ken Follett (third of the Century Trilogy) which deals with Birmingham AL in 1963. Excellent writing by Dr King and good comments by Willis. Thanks!

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  17. Thanks, Willis. For supplemental reading, I’ve just finished and recommend ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ by J.D. Vance. A stunning and heartbreaking story of the community in southern Ohio, transplanted from Kentucky. The whole story is an emphatic confirmation of your ‘rules of poverty’. Those rules are more color blind than we realize.

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