“We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet-like speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say ‘wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’; when you take a cross-country 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’; when your first name becomes ‘nigger’ and your middle name becomes ‘boy’ (however old you are) and your last name becomes ‘John,’ and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title ‘Mrs.’; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘nobodyness’--then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience ...”
-Dr. Martin Luther King from Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Growing up I looked forward to Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a break from school. Learning about Dr. King in history class, and visiting the King Center in Atlanta with my mom and siblings over summer break supplied me with the facts.
But as a little black girl sitting in a predominately white classroom, situated comfortably inside the white suburb where I grew up, I didn’t understand that the life I enjoyed was impossible without his work.
Now that I’m older, I can’t help but think that I’ve managed to live my whole life in spaces that were never really meant for me. I’m thankful today for the marriage that would not have been legal or possible fifty years ago. I'm thankful for our children who would never have existed.
The America Dr. King describes in the passage above is one where my ancestors lived. There was no idyllic white picket fence. They were considered less than human and forced into hard labor to line the pockets of their masters. For almost a hundred years after slavery ended African Americans were relegated to the lowest caste through legal means.
Old habits die hard, and we forget that its only been fifty years. My grandparents grew up under Jim Crow, and my parents were born into it. My mom and dad remember watching the Civil Rights movement unfold on the news during their formative years.
The wounds are still fresh, but the healing is for all of us. Our soil holds a dark and brutal history. It does no good to water down the truth of the past.
“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”
― Elie Wiesel from Night
I’m thankful for the youthful ignorance that enabled me to be bold in the belief that I belong. I am thankful for the maturity to see that the fight isn’t over--school integration, equal pay for equal work, redlining, and police brutality are still real issues.
But I am a survivor. I am one whose life has been purchased through the sacrifice of others. So today I testify and I remember. Let us never forget.