I grew up in the South in segregated neighborhoods, schools, and churches. I was born in 1943. The world was in violent upheaval across Europe and in the Pacific. That year, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was finishing high school and preparing to enter college at the age of 15.
I can’t remember when I first heard of Dr. King but I think it was probably a six o’clock news report of one of the bombings of Dr. King’s home. Or maybe I saw him on the cover of Time magazine or television during the Montgomery bus boycott. 1957 was an eventful year in the life of Dr. King and in the life of our nation. When they were happening, these events didn’t make much of an impression on a white teenager from Houston’s blue-collar ship channel neighborhoods. I was in my middle teens and not as precocious as the young Martin, so the events of the day didn’t move me the way they would when I read about them later in my life.
At that age I was more interested in Houston Buffs and socializing with my church youth group than I was in the evening news. You may think that the brutality and injustice suffered by American citizens across the South would have gotten even a kid’s attention. But we white kids suffered from a vision problem that kept us from seeing the world of privilege we lived in and the injustices it had been built upon.
When I was a kid we listened to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon on the radio. If you ever listened to Sergeant Preston on the radio, you know that he sometimes got lost in the snow. Everything was white. The ground was white. The sky was white. Even the Yukon River was white. Everything ahead was white. Everything behind was white. White to the left. White to the right. He was blinded by the whiteness. Like Sergeant Preston, we had been snow-blinded.
Growing up in the Galena Park school district was, for a white kid, much like Sgt. Preston’s snow blindness. When everything you knew was white, you missed out on a lot of what was going on in your world. If you went to all white schools, even though your school bus passed just a mile or two from “that other school” in your district, you never saw it nor heard from the teachers and students who gave and received education there because the distance was magnified by fields and fences, dead-end roads and lengthy roundabout routes required to go there — and by attitudes, by America’s apartheid. We were snow blind.
That “other school” was Fidelity Manor High School. It was a parallel universe that we knew little about. Our school district office was across the street from my high school. It was the same district office that governed Fidelity Manor High School yet there was no one from that parallel universe on the school board that met across the street.
Some fifty years after my graduation from Galena Park High School, an odd thing happened when I was in a community theater production of “A Raisin in the Sun.” If you know the play, there is one white role in it — Karl Lindner from the neighborhood association where the Youngers had bought a house. He’s not the good guy. But it was fun. And the experience helped penetrate my snow blindness. Two very memorable things happened there for me.
First, while chatting one afternoon with the father of our youngest cast member, I learned that he had graduated from Fidelity Manor High School the same year I graduated from Galena Park. We should have been classmates. What could have been a fifty-year friendship had been stolen from me, out of reach and blocked from my view by the same snow blindness that kept me from being much aware of Dr. King’s work when I was a teenager.
The second thing that struck me during our rehearsals for “Raisin” was that the director began every rehearsal with a prayer. That is not the usual practice at our community theater and it caused me to question the difference between the religious experience of these Christians and my own. The other cast members of “A Raisin in the Sun” incorporated God into their daily lives openly and comfortably while my own experience was purposely subtle, private and quiet. At first I thought it was just a matter of our different cultural upbringing. But our snow blindness is most acute on Sunday morning at eleven, that infamously “most segregated hour” in America.
I now remind myself that Dr. King was, above all else, a preacher and a follower of Jesus Christ. But Reverend King’s message was different from the messages I had heard in my little white Methodist Church in Jacinto City where I grew up. We were all about love, mercy, and grace. Rev. King added an element we didn’t talk about much — justice. Justice is the product of love, mercy and grace practiced fully, with hard work, commitment and courage.
Thinking back to my graduation in 1961, I began to wonder what Dr. King had been doing that night. What I discovered was that on or about the night of my snow-blind graduation ceremony, Dr. King had been addressing the graduating class of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, America’s oldest historically black university.
He told his audience of young graduates that they should be wary of the psychology that sees maladjustment as an ailment that is always to be avoided. Becoming a well-adjusted member of a society that is based on injustice should never be their goal. He quoted the prophet Amos: “Let justice run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” He told them they should be “as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln” who knew that no nation could exist half slave and half free. He told them to be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who told them to love their enemies and bless them that curse you but always to remember the words of the prophet Amos echoing across the centuries and to live with courage.
The speech I heard at Galena Park High School that night was nothing like that. We were told by one of our privileged young classmates that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Success would be ours; let’s get started.
Across the years of my own life, I think I have been able to overcome at least a little of my snow blindness and it has been largely because of the work of Dr. King. He should stand as a hero to everyone who has found a way to see through the blinding whiteness surrounding them. And he is a prophet for every Christian who has learned that there is more to the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus than love, mercy and grace. Reverend King kept reminding us that where there is love, mercy and grace there must also be justice. And justice happens only when we apply ourselves to the task with hard work, commitment and courage. Yes, justice requires courage. For Jesus there was a cross, nails, and a crown of thorns. For Socrates there was the cup of poison. For Dr. King there was a bullet. He was very aware of the danger of living a fully faithful life. And he did it by answering the call to lead always in the direction of justice.
By the time I was in college, I had begun to pay more attention to the civil rights movement and the work of Dr. King. The election of 2016 gave us a president, on the other hand, who shows no evidence in his actions, speeches, tweets or policy positions that he has peeped outside the veil of white to see and feel the pain of lynchings, of high-power fire hoses, snarling dogs, and bombings that were being inflicted on so many other American citizens because of the color of their skin. I don’t expect him to change much during his term in office. If he has not peeped outside the veil yet it won’t happen this late in his life.
Five days after Dr. King was killed, I was drafted into the United States Army. I remember listening as the radio played in our holding barracks at Fort Bliss as we awaited our training assignments. I remember hearing the reports of American cities in spasms of uncontrollable grief and anger.
It was a sad time to be asked to put yourself in a position of dying for a foreign policy that you didn’t support. Before he died, Dr. King had begun to speak out against the war in Southeast Asia. To him it made no sense to pretend that our obligation to make justice happen applied only to our own civil rights and in our immediate neighborhoods. The principles of the movement applied, as well, to our international relations and to our domestic economic sphere. He was leading a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis when he died. The struggle for justice is never-ending and it offers many fronts for our engagement.
My awareness of Dr. King grew slowly over the years since I graduated from high school in my white world where the governing powers still struggled with the idea that our two schools could somehow be separate but serve us equally. The young actor’s father whom I met at our community theater was a Dow Chemical training supervisor named James Doss. He was well educated and led a very productive life due in no small part to the dedicated educators at Fidelity High School who worked at a disadvantage. We were favored over at Galena Park High School with more resources, better facilities, more attention, and all of the seats on the school board. When James Doss died fifty-five years after our “separate but equal” graduation from high school, his funeral was held in the United Methodist church I attend in Lake Jackson on a beautiful Saturday morning in October. When got there I couldn’t even get in the parking lot.
As I grew up and learned that my vision had been limited by the blinding whiteness, I became fascinated by the colors I could see in a world of many miraculous and lovely hues. My eyes would never have been opened and my vision cleared to this beauty but for the work of Dr. King.