Today, on this 50th anniversary of the fabled March on Washington, many people will pose on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, calling attention to their long-held desire for equality and brotherhood. On this anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, one of the great orations of history, there will be many who nod in assent, as if they did the same a half century ago, able to grasp King’s wisdom as a child. There will be people who heard King’s words then and silently feared upheaval and conflict, and today forget their reluctance and cleanse the guilt from their memory.
I hope there will be much more honest reverence for a pivotal moment in our history, when as a nation we took a collective turn for the better. It was certainly not the day racism was erased, but perhaps it was the day bigotry ceased to be acceptable, and we the privileged began to sense our shame.
I will not pretend. When King delivered his speech I was a 10-year-old boy worried more about the hot summer, my baseball team and the coming of fifth grade than I was about speeches in Washington. But I was aware of what was taking place. We all were. Race and racism were everyday issues, a common topic of adult conversation, and a source of bewilderment, guilt, tension, fear, and occasionally hope.
We had been born when segregation was the rule in much of the nation, and even where it was not many whites took their superiority as a given. In 1963, it had only been 50 years since the president of the United States had purged blacks from all positions of authority in the federal government, only 16 years since Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Dodgers or the first black guest was permitted at Wenatchee’s Cascadian Hotel. It was only 15 years since segregation was the rule in the U.S. military. It was only a decade since the highest elected officials in the land used the word “nigger” in public conversation. It was nine years before the Supreme Court ordered schools desegregated. Much violence and murder was yet to come.
In 1963 I lived in a city that thought itself enlightened and modern and vastly superior to those cruel places in the South, a city that was segregated nonetheless, if not by law, by deed. I had no black friends, no black classmates or even black acquaintances. I do not know where the nearest black family lived, but it must has been miles and miles way. I remember family discussions in which it was agreed that “Negroes” were deserving of equal rights and had many legitimate grievances, but we didn’t seek out opportunities to commingle. I don’t remember anybody who did. And I was like most 10-year-olds. I thought we were pretty much like everybody else. I heard Dr. King speak of his dream, that one day black and white children would be able to join hands as sisters and brothers. It seemed very far away.
It will be the staple today to marvel at how far we have come, and bemoan how far we have to go. The obvious will be stated, that too many of us judge people by the color of their skin and not the content of their character. They will point to the racial resentment that still so obviously festers. Opportunities abound, but barriers persist. And they will all be right.
But of course there is hope. President Obama will point to himself as evidence, and he is. It was not long ago when it was customary here at The World to field calls from angry subscribers whenever we ran a picture or story on a Latino on our front page. People complained about having to see “those people” in their paper. Those calls are fewer.
Human beings are perfectible. We can change. Tolerance can win over hatred, and wisdom defeat ignorance. It is better, and will be better yet. Dream.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.