My Life with Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King had a profound effect on my personal development, though I never met him.  On the day that honors him, I often think back to his importance and influence.  There are some lessons there, too.

I was a very young teenager when he first rose to prominence.  We had a black-and-white television and there weren’t many programs available, so I heard him preaching (or teaching) in our living room.  At first I didn’t take it in well.  I wasn’t used to seeing or hearing black men (there were none in my acquaintance) and certainly was not accustomed to the call-and-response style.  But his words started to penetrate my indifference.  What he actually said I can’t recall, but I became aware that there were some basic truths being conveyed and it woke me up to thinking about certain issues.

At the time, I lived in a well-integrated small town in Oklahoma.  If I thought about it at all, I was proud that we had such free mixing of the races.  Cherokee Indian and white, that is.  There were what was referred to as “full-bloods” living up in the low Ozark hills in cabins with old refrigerators sitting in the front yard.  The old men came to town on Saturdays and sat along the streets spitting tobacco juice, while the young women strolled along openly nursing their babies.  (This was long before middle-class white women made such behavior stylish.)  I was aware of them as exotic.  But I also had many friends who were of various mixtures of Cherokee, many of whom were quite impoverished.  We played, yes, cowboys and Indians (no racial assignments) when I was younger and hung out together, though my small junior-high clique did not include many.  I was proud that I am a very small part Cherokee myself.  If you had asked me, I’d have said that Tahlequah was a town free of racial prejudice.

Somehow I missed the main truth: that it was a town with a color line and a black community who literally never crossed it.  One simply did not see black people on the streets. There were a few exceptions.  My mother worked with a black medical assistant in our local doctor’s office.  And for a time there were a few black students in my junior high school.  They kept mostly to themselves, though we had a brilliant and vivacious girl in our 8th grade English class who was made the editor of the little paper we put out. But unlike many Southern towns, blacks were not employed as servants in homes and were rarely seen.  This made it easy to ignore them.

I had not been aware of any racial prejudice in those early days.  We knew it was impolite to use the “n-word”, though it was also part of some common parlance.  (When I sold Christmas candies at our local dime store, farmers from the country would order the chocolate drops by the name “N*toes”; I was mildly scandalized but mostly thought it quaint.)  There was simply no discussion of racial issues where I lived.

It was not until the beginning of the civil rights era that I realized how oblivious I had been.  While I noticed that all the black students had vanished in high school (I found later that they had been bussed to a black high school in the country), I was not particularly curious about it.  But it took a new young minister at my church some years later to inform me that blacks had not been allowed to shop in our stores, or go to the movies (no, not even in a segregated section).  They could buy shoes, but not try them on.  We didn’t have “colored only” restrooms.  They simply weren’t welcome, period.  As I listened to Mr. King and as the civil rights era began to occupy the national news, I began to have discussions with people about racial issues and discovered that I had been living with people who did carry a strong racial prejudice.   I heard some shocking things as some degree of integration began to be visible.  I remember a man looking with disgust while a black woman tried on shoes at our shoe store.  He said to me, “we should send them back to Africa”.  A young woman complained about blacks at a bus stop.  “I didn’t know they let THEM in here.”  When I argued, she said that if they intermarried, their children would all be maids and chauffeurs.  Yes, all those stereotypes are true. Nice people really said those things.

The civil rights battle was what informed my early political growth and its heroes were my heroes.  The Freedom Riders were my martyrs and my friends in early college fantasized about going to a sit-in and being jailed for protesting.  (I was in college near Kansas City, which was also segregated.)  When Mr. King was assassinated, it struck me with as much force as when President Kennedy was shot.  It seemed like the triumph of the evil side of our country.

But I can never be superior to those who resisted the coming to equality of black people, because I can’t forget that I didn’t notice.  I was simply not curious.  It wasn’t that I bore anyone ill will and I thought myself to be a good person.  But I ignored what I didn’t quite understand.  My mother once drove with me to pick up some food at the AME church in a part of town I never visited.  (Her office colleague’s church had a fundraiser; I’ve never since had such good chicken and dumplings.)  But I didn’t ask questions.  Why didn’t I ask what happened to the junior high editor who I liked so much?  Why was I oblivious?

I found later that even my beloved Cherokees had a racially charged past.  Some of them had been slaveholders.  While I was raised on the saga of the Trail of Tears that brought Cherokees to Oklahoma, I never heard about their participation on the “wrong” side of the Civil War because of their slave holdings.  The children of those slaves and their Cherokee masters were declared not to be true Cherokees once the money started flowing in.  (The impoverished children of my own childhood are now wealthy after a casino was built by the tribe.)  Only recently have the “Freedmen” been declared tribal members.  But that wasn’t part of the history I was taught.

I think this may be a basic quality of human nature, that we choose almost without thought to look away from circumstances that don’t directly involve us but are potentially awkward or unpleasant.  I’ve always understood how prewar Germany could have many good and kind people, yet commit the atrocities that occurred under Hitler.  They simply chose to look away.

What I appreciated about Martin Luther King was that he didn’t just speak to the injustices being done to blacks by whites, but rather he spoke to the basic human condition.  Perhaps today is a good time to reread some of what he said, and ask what blind spots we are carrying today.

Addendum:  I should hasten to say that I never saw signs indicating that black people were not allowed in various places.  There were no segregated facilities with signs indicating a special entrance or a prohibition.  The one exception was a restaurant that had the following sign: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone”.  I used to stare at that sign when my family ate there, trying to imagine on what grounds people might be refused service.  Dirty?  Rude?  Drunk?  It wasn’t until years later that I figured it out.

And of course I was a child and had limited experience.  Surely black people were present in workplaces and on some streets.  I didn’t see them much, though.

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