There has been jarring rhetoric in the last week: shocking racist comments about the Haiti crisis by Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh; the archaic usages of race and color of Senator Harry Reid. Today, on the eighty-first birthday of Martin Luther King, I'm thinking about my early years, shaped in Florida, Georgia and Texas throughout a period of racial upheaval.
I sometimes stood shoulder to shoulder with meaningful people I have referred to in my lifetime as "colored," then "negro," then "black," now "African-American" -- connotative acknowledgment in those words of the evolving social changes in our country, despite the occasional throwbacks.
My late husband Chaim Stern told of his experiences as a Freedom Rider, traveling to the deep South in 1964 to test civil liberties and discrimination. He sat at Mississippi lunch counters and was part of "Freedom Summer" along with thousands of others, including the martyred activists Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.
My experiences were less dangerous, but as a young person growing up in the South, I felt a tiny part of an historical movement gathering strength, decade by decade. Among my indelible early remembrances during this time of racial divide:
-- Sitting on my unabashedly liberal, German-born grandmother's lap in the cab of Johnny the gardener's pickup truck in Miami in the late 1940s, the smell of fertilizer around us. He talks wearily as the neighbors stare at us from their jalousied windows. I am a child, but I remember the pain in that man's lined face.
-- Drinking from the "colored" fountain at Rexall's drugstore. Maybe I was six, and I was surprised to find that the water tasted the same as the water from the "whites only" fountain.
-- Walking, pigtailed and deliberate in the 1950s to the very back of the K bus in Miami, with head-turns from the whites in the front, weary smiles from the hotel maids and busboys and decent, darker-skinned people I marched toward. I wanted to join the folks in the back of the bus even as Rosa Parks defiantly sat in the front of a bus in Alabama.
-- Leading an orientation group of black students integrating the University of Florida in the early '60s, and getting heckled with racial epithets.
-- Teaching, then tutoring, the first black teens at Marietta High School, in Georgia, a formerly segregated high school, in 1966. Realizing that the struggling black students' previous science textbooks at Lemon Street School were published twenty years earlier, and it was almost impossible for them to catch up.
-- Befriending the only black teacher at Marietta High, a lovely woman who had been secretary to Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. She warns me to consider the consequences of having lunch with her, but we break bread without incident.
-- Working with community organizers to integrate my white-flight neighborhood in south Atlanta, in 1967. We purposely rent a house in this area and attend a formal tea at the home of neighbors, Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin Mayes. He was the renowned and beloved president of Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had studied.
-- Volunteering for Andrew Young, (later to become the mayor of Atlanta), and other civil rights activists who worked alongside King. These exceptional people are still ostracized by many white neighbors in the area.
-- Feeling despair the next year when I watched that balcony scene in Memphis on a black and white TV, and the smoldering riots it ignited. My husband, at officers-training at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, was to ship off to Vietnam, leaving me at home for a year with our infant son. My husband told me that almost all of the drafted soldiers he will be administrating will be black.
Forty-seven years after King's great speech at the Lincoln Memorial, forty two years after his death, a black man holds the highest office in the land, and King's birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. In the span of my lifetime, the great civil rights leader's dream of an America where his children "will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character" has just about come true.
Yet despite all the gains, as I listen to reports on the devastation in Haiti, and some of the awful comments from wingnuts, I'm aware that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr's struggle against racism and bigotry is never finished -- even as we celebrate him on Monday.