Today was celebrated as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. There are a myriad of postings, articles, and presentations throughout the United States–and hopefully elsewhere. But today, I’m going to talk about what the day means to me.
My dad died on January 16, 1983. That was the year President Ronald Reagan signed the law to make the 3rd Monday in January a federal holiday; the law went into effect 1986. In 1983, I most certainly was not thinking about Martin Luther King, Jr. though I believe I saw a small piece of his message.
So let me start at the beginning. My dad was born in a small town in Arkansas. He was raised to consider Afro-Americans (though my dad called them colored) people as less than Caucasian (white) people. As I grew up in a larger city that had little diversity in its racial population, any discussions of racial discrimination were few and far between. That changed as I entered my teenage years and started paying attention to the nightly news.
The marches in the south, the church bombing, the lynchings–I just could not conceive how one person could hate another person because of the color of their skin. Although I had never been around a person of color, the whole situation was completely foreign to me. It wasn’t until a few years later that a young Afro-American kid, Rod, entered the high school I went to. Rod and my brother became good friends. At that time, we had a lake cabin and could always ask a friend to spend the weekend with us. On one weekend, my brother asked if Rod could spend the weekend at the lake.
Thank goodness my brother was smart enough to mention that Rod was Afro-American before he actually extended the invitation to Rod. I would hate to think of what Rod would have been exposed to if my dad saw him first. Needless to say, Rod was not allowed to come to our lake cabin. That was the first time I had a personal experience with racial discrimination. It was an appalling feeling and I was extremely disappointed in my dad. Of course, this was never discussed; you didn’t discuss things with my dad back then!
About 10 years later, I came home for a short visit. One day I answered the phone and someone asked for my dad. I told them he was busy, but if he gave me his name, I would let my dad know he called. So this voice on the phone says his name is Willie Mayes. I was a smart-ass at the time, so responded with, “and I’m the Queen of England” and hung up.
Much to my chagrin, when I told my dad about this prank call, he told me that Willie was his best friend! Well, I had been out on my own for several years, so I didn’t know my dad’s friends any more. A few days later I had the honor to meet Willie. He was Afro-American, much younger than my dad. They were both addicted to ham radio, which is how they met.
I was shocked to see how close they were; they joked, made sarcastic comments to each other, and it was very obvious they were indeed best friends. My dad would joke that Willie made him color-blind. When my dad was in his last throes of cancer and in the hospital, Willie was a great comfort to everyone, especially at the memorial service. And Willie remained a close family friend for years to come.
The message of Martin Luther King, Jr. that some day people “… will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character…” came to fruition–at least for my dad. The fact that someone his age and with his upbringing, could change should bring hope to the world. I personally believe that the changing world–thanks to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–and the friendship of Willie indeed made my dad color-blind. If only more people were color-blind! My daughter carries forth the color-blind gene because she celebrates diversity. Her grandfather would be proud of her.
And one little interesting fact: my dad’s father’s name was Martin Luther <last name>. Could that have been a sign of changes to come?