Note: Occasionally I will use a term that can be emotionally loaded. Please do not misunderstand this—I do not do so to antagonize anyone or to add to heat to the discussion, but only as an understanding of what was heard in context in that time.
Growing up in the 1950’s and early 1960’s as a Caucasian I was not aware of any kind of racial issues, not by my intention, but by circumstances. My personal life was separated from that, physically and in terms of communication. Hey, I only made one telephone call (the nine-party line) before I was in Junior High. So my exposure to racial issues was limited to what was on the radio and later TV.
My sense of “segregation” is that we who lived in the country with homemade or second hand clothes were the outsiders, segregated from those who lived in town with the new clothes (my little mind felt that way, whether it was true or not). In the world I lived, I knew only one kind of racial barrier: Caucasians (‘whites”) and Native Americans (at the time, “Indians”). For me, the common terms “colored” “nigger” “black” or “African-American” were lost; that was not a world I inhabited. (Just as a side note, I never used the terms “colored” or “nigger” at any time in my life [except in reference when teaching, see below] because I found them offensive even when hearing them at the time.)
I knew about the Civil Rights movement, and followed the events in those “other worlds,” like Selma, Montgomery, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc. But that was not my experience, and there was really nothing I could do to change that… I didn’t even have enough money to take a bus trip to locate a troubled spot. But I was fascinated by Martin Luther King, Jr. even then. He spoke to my heart, even though I had not “been there, done that.”
Going to college in 1967 meant for me entering a new world—I met a friend who happened to be “black”—that was the term everyone used. And I met more. They were not angry, belligerent, or mean. They were “just like me.” For good or bad.
But I also saw on TV what was taking place and the violence. I knew in my heart from own experiences (another blog?) that what had happened, and still happening in many places, was not right. But not being “there” and life still going on in my own world (college then teaching), I was on the sidelines.
Several years later (early 1970’s) I served in the U.S. Navy. And there I was immersed in the aftermath of the riots of the 1960’s and 1970’s. As an Intelligence Officer in a Navy squadron that meant I did all the other jobs that none of the pilots wanted. One was to teach an “engagement” series of meetings titled “Race Relations” (plus a couple other related topics) to our squadron. The Navy was responding to real problems in real life on board ship. So I moved from the sidelines to active involvement. And now I saw the anger and hostility, arrogance, and condescension —on all sides—because we had “whites, blacks, and Hispanics” all mixed into close quarters.
Over the next three years I led many discussions, some heated, but none violent. That experience opened my eyes to the hurts and anguish that many felt, and that I had not. Surprisingly, during the entire three years, we did not have one “explosive” event, fights, stabbings, or confrontations. Looking back, it was a combination of things. At the time I wasn’t sure what I had done was helpful, but now 35 years later, I see the value of my observation close up and personal of what racial strife does to people, no matter which side.
In the 1980’s at seminary, I had many friends, but one of my closest friends (who happened to be “black”) became my daily Greek reading partner. Every day we met to read the Greek text, discuss, and pray. I remember during our fourth year he was asked to preach in Seminary Chapel on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. He asked me about the sermon and how he was going to preach it. We talked about it. He preached it, and he did an excellent job, good Law and Gospel presentation and application. He began the sermon (as only he could have): “I have a dream!” … I have come a long way since the early 1950’s.
Since 1967 I have had a greater appreciation for what Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed —he far better than anyone—and what he fought for. It saddens me to see many twist what he had said and done. Many claim to follow him, but they really do not (another post?). That is, they have inherited a complaint or plea without having lived the reality behind the plea. They have not lived in that same environment that gave rise to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s passion and dream. And in the process, prejudice, discrimination, and segregation continues, but not always along racial lines.
We adopted two brothers from Korea in the 1970’s. We experienced the hidden prejudices, the intentional sometimes silent, but sometimes very vocal, forms of racial discrimination. Does it compare to what “blacks” experienced in the years prior to the 1970’s? No, and it is not written to elicit that comparison. Rather, to show that looking at only one aspect of discrimination misses what Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed.
My heart aches for anyone who lives in that kind of environment, especially for those who cannot do anything to change the circumstances. And sadly, abuse (marital, family, elder, etc.) falls into this same category. It is not popular like the Civil Rights movement eventually became; it is hidden by the abuser, the one being abused for fear, other family members, and by the “silent majority” who pretend it doesn’t exist. Even in the Church.
As a Christian I have begun to appreciate even more what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote and proclaimed. Also as a Christian, I can appreciate even more what the Bible reveals about God’s care for those who are outsiders: widows, orphans, foreigners, aliens, outcasts.
As Christians are we continuing the prejudice, the strife, the separation, the willful neglect of those who suffer injustice? And from that Biblical perspective, we, of all people, should be sensitive to what is happening in our world today—and then realize that God may be using us to be a voice from those who have no voice. And if God used and continues to use Martin Luther King, Jr. to challenge us out of our complacency, then so be it. After all, it is not just him that can say, “I have a dream!”