Martin Luther King Jr.. How do we begin to measure his impact?
Ever since the election of President Barack Obama, there has been a lot of loose talk about a "post-racial" world. Any African-American who hasn't been lured into the smarmy embrace of the Republican Party will tell you that's a lot of hooey. Only they probably wouldn't say hooey.
My contention is that there is not a white American (we'll stick to the USA) over the age of 50 today who isn't a "racist" to one extent or another. Including me. Stay with me here. It's not really that kind of confession.
I think that there is a crucial age when we first identify the world around us - somewhere between 7 and 12 maybe? - and take a picture of it. This is it, we think, this is how life is. This is what the world looks like. This is the world into which we will someday venture. This is the baseline. This is normal.
I was 10 in 1953. Scanning the Wiki for 1953, I see that Eisenhower becomes President, Elizabeth II becomes Queen, Stalin dies, Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA, Aldous Huxley tries LSD, Ian Fleming publishes [amazon 014200202X inline], Hugh Hefner launches Playboy, and Albert Schweitzer wins the Nobel Prize.
This latter, along with the Mau Mau uprising and the imprisonment of Jomo Kenyatta, is as close as the Wiki for that year comes to any mention of African anything. The only black face I remember seeing on TV was that of Rochester in the Jack Benny Show. We are years away from Harry Belafonte, and Sammy Davis Jr., not to mention Bill Cosby. By the time I Spy hit the airwaves, I was 22. It was a big deal.
There were black kids in my Junior High School. Some of them sat near me in class, and we joked around. I even had a crush on one of them. He was exotic. Kinda like Tonto. But I never saw their homes, I never talked to them outside of class. It just wasn't done. It wasn't "normal." We white kids didn't think a thing of it. I don't think they missed us either.
What I don't think any of us realized yet was how much they were going to miss - or would miss, if it weren't for Martin Luther King. Education, jobs, homes, a drink from a fountain, a place at the table.
For a kid turning 10 in 1963, there is a very real possibility that black is beautiful and a March on Washington told them that wrongs have been perpetrated, eyes must be opened, that something must be made right.
By 1973, a Civil Rights Act is in place. The kids have seen I Spy, Sanford and Son, and George Jefferson has made his first appearance on All in the Family.
The picture of "normalcy" has changed. The image that black people have in the eyes of white children is no longer so "exotic." The image that black children have of themselves no longer promises a future as Rochester.
Racism hasn't gone away. I am still aware that when I see, hear or meet black writers and other professionals, my internal reaction is one of "it's so great that they can do that too." As if it is unexpected. As if it is still a revelation.
I don't remember when my education in the realities of African-American existence in this country began for real. It was long before Doctor King came on my scene. But I don't think anything is going to erase my picture of "normal," and my sense that African-American participation in the everyday life of the nation is, although welcome, somewhat unexpected. A little exotic. And if it is that way for me, after all these years, I can only imagine what it's like for some others in my age range who don't get out much.
So, no. We are not in a post-racial society. But our children's view of normal includes African Americans involved in every phase of American life, on every rung of the ladder. They are less exotic and more just other people.
For which we can thank Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The work goes on.