Stride Toward Humanism
Among Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous works are "Stride Toward Freedom" and "Letters from Birmingham Jail." Encouraged by a post from my PI, Paul Carini, I've written my personal childhood recollections of racism in the years before King died, and the impact of reading his words after he died.
In an entirely appropriate Slack post, the Principal Investigator at the University of Arizona Lab in which I work, Dr. Paul Carini, broadcast a reminder to me and the rest of his staff not to come to work on Martin Luther King Day. “Go have fun and remember the King,” he said.
Being ready to turn 63, in a Lab where no one else is over 40, I realized that I am the only one who can literally remember Martin Luther King, Jr. He was 39 when he died, and I was 13. The best friend I had had in my life to that point was black; I am white. As a result, I felt the death of King very deeply. I had unfortunately seen my friend shunned by racists in my own family, refusing to be seen riding with him in the same car out of fear of being mocked by friends.
Having only seen King in sound bites on TV, I decided after he died to read some of his famous works, beginning with “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to find out more about him. The entire work was gripping, but one long passage has stuck with me to this day. It is a single sentence made from dozens of phrases set apart with semi-colons, describing why blacks could no longer wait for equality. It says in part, “…when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’…"
In the summer of 1958, when I was three, my parents took my older sister, who was four, on an automobile trip from our home in rural Western New York to rural Southwestern Missouri, where they visited some relatives. My sister and I were aware that there were people with different-colored skin than ours from a Sunday School song we sang nearly every week: “Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” But we had never seen the people we were singing about.
My sister came back with a stunning story from that trip: while drinking from a smaller, lower, more reachable drinking fountain in a public place, she was suddenly lifted up by my father and told to use a different water fountain while he held her up in place. She asked why she couldn’t use the littler fountain and he said, “This sign says ‘colored’ and it means it’s only for colored people. This one says ‘white’ and it’s the only one we’re allowed.” As a result, the first two words my sister learned to read were “white” and “colored.” My father corroborated my sister’s story and related that every motel they stopped at had signs saying “white only.” He had no idea where the motels for colored people might be in The South.
I wondered at my early age what songs the children in The South sang in their Sunday School. As the years past, and I learned from my church pastor (who was my father) the Biblical basis for defense of slavery and separation of races, I became a more committed humanist than Christian. The Fundamentalists who surrounded me in my childhood call such a process “backsliding.” But it was and is the best I can do, and Martin Luther King Jr. said that for him, it was good enough. It may be blasphemy, but I still find great comfort in that.
I smile thinking about how often Dr. Carini passes along to students an aphorism that was passed on to him: "Just do your best; it's usually good enough." Christians are often told to try and find the Christ in others. I'm hoping it's good enough to try and find the Martin Luther King Jr. in them.