Fifty-One Years After IT Happened

I “grew up” in a small town in central Missouri. “Population 2,047”, the sign used to say, until they changed it to something north of 2,200…at which point we excitedly began to prepare for the arrival of…whatever comes with being a big city.

In 1968, I was 10 years old. Versailles (MO) was overwhelmingly white, with a fairly small percentage of African-Americans. As far as I knew, everyone in town pretty much got along with each other. To my 10-year-old eyes, there wasn’t much racism, that was visible, anyhow. Yes, a lot a things were “separated”…like church. There was a pretty varied assortment of denominational churches, and then there was “the black church”. To this day, I couldn’t tell you what the actual name or denomination of the black church was, but I do recall that my father (who was the pastor of the local Assembly of God church) had to explain to some of the board members WHY he had invited the youth choir from the “black church” to come and sing at our church. I DON’T think he bothered to ask or explain why he accepted the invitation from the pastor to be the guest preacher at the “black church”, but I do remember that it raised a few eyebrows. So, there was that….

And, I was aware that some white people had a more noticeably antagonistic attitude towards African-Americans (NOT the term they used to refer to them). There were plenty of racial jokes around, including the use of the “N” word. I told one of those jokes one day, standing in the lunch line at school. No sooner had I delivered the punch line (which included that word) than I turned around, and saw one of my best friends standing less than five feet away. Yes, he was black. I quickly turned around, and acted like I hadn’t said it. I tried to tell myself that maybe he hadn’t heard it, but I knew that he had. Even as a little boy, it still ranks as one of the most humiliating moments of my life. I never said anything about it to him…until our ten year high school reunion. When I pulled him aside to apologize for something I had said almost 20 years earlier, he claimed he had no memory of it, but he assured me that I was forgiven, anyhow. I still felt a little bit of…something good, and clean…for getting it off of my chest. Some lessons are painful. (When I traveled from Savannah back to Versailles for my father’s memorial service in 2015, the FIRST person I saw standing outside of the church, waiting, was that friend. Some things are priceless.)

Still, that was pretty much the extent of racism in my little world. We probably wouldn’t even have called it racism; it was more like “bad manners”. That’s how I saw the world.

Then, somebody shot, and killed, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even in my sheltered, largely oblivious, ten-year-old mind…there was no doubt. Somebody…white…murdered him BECAUSE he was black. And, he wouldn’t stay in his place. And, he wouldn’t be quiet.

The shock to my system was visceral. “Do these kind of people exist? What kind of hate has to be in someone’s heart to do something like that? This is 1968, for Pete’s sake! We’re all supposed to be more civilized than this?” Deep thoughts for a 10-year-old boy…but I think it’s actually a pretty fair assessment of what a lot of my 10-year-old friends were thinking, too. We all lost some of our innocence.

Yes, there were riots, and demonstrations, and speeches. Televised coverage of the funeral, of course. But, there was also a significant amount of attention given to the things that Dr. King had said while he was alive…the message that he had so forcefully, and eloquently, delivered…that had gotten him killed. Many of his words have become practically immortal. Sermons have been preached. Speeches have been made. Songs have been written. Untold numbers of books have been written specifically about those words. Plaques, banners, posters, bookmarks, keychains, coffee cups…you can find his words preserved on just about anything that will hold print. Practically every major city in America has a street named after him. There are magnificent statues of Dr. King that have been built in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and even Memphis, the city where he was murdered.

I don’t know of anyone, including myself, that could tell you a single word that was ever spoken by the man who killed him. I suppose you could look it up on Wikipedia, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a hot search item.

I can tell you that among my little circle of friends in that tiny mid-western town, I think it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that our generation would see the end of that kind of racism in the civilized U.S.A. We would see to it. We were going to help. We were sure….

Oh, to have that kind of naïve innocence, again.

As we think about Dr. King, today, fifty-one years after his death, there is still a lot of work to do. The bad news is that there are dark forces in our culture today who are trying to make it acceptable – almost fashionable, even – to declare themselves as white supremacists, white nationalists, and even, racists. The good news – I think, maybe – is that the obstacles are a lot more out in the open now. There’s not much naïveté left.

The job is unfinished…but it is a job that is worth doing. The job, for you and I, is to do whatever we can to contribute to building a society where no one is judged “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Those words – Dr. King’s words – are loaded with meaning and power, my friends.

In the words of the theme song of the civil rights movement, “We shall overcome, someday.”

“So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.”
‭‭Galatians‬ ‭6:9‬ ‭NLT

I love you all. ❤️🙏

*Note:  This was first posted (on Facebook) one year ago.

2 thoughts on “Fifty-One Years After IT Happened

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