Monday, January 19, 2009

Troubling Memories on Martin Luther King Day

I was in the doctor's office this morning talking with my child about Martin Luther King, whose "I Have a Dream" speech was playing on the radio in the waiting room. In my home when I was growing up, the news was much discussed. As my parents did with me, I discuss with them my childhood memories of historical events.

I was explaining what the world was like back in 1963 with legal rather than social segregation and the violence with which King's protests were met. My daughter and I spoke in hushed tones, not wanting to talk over the speech, which I believe is one of the most masterful pieces of oratory ever recorded.

There was a woman in the doctor's office to whom I nodded when we walked in. She is one of my "op-ed" people. I have seldom agreed with her on any issue. But I never fail to walk away from a conversation with her without new information to round out my world view. She voted for Obama. The eloquence with which she defended him far outstripped that found in most news commentary. Such people fuel uplifting debate.

I noticed a look of pronounced dismay on Mrs. S's face that grew more pronounced as I spoke to my daughter. Finally she could contain herself no longer.

"After King was killed, my brothers and I were almost killed as well." she said with quiet passion.
"We went to school the morning after. The police had to escort us out. Every day after that was hell on earth going to class. My parents had to move heaven and earth to transfer us to safer schools."

Mrs. S had said nothing against King's legacy. She and her husband had a reasoned political view that left no room for bigotry. I had experienced this first hand when I ate at their table years before. But her response to Martin Luther King's name had the aura of flashback. I t clearly triggered traumatic memories.

I was living in an almost all white suburb when King was killed. I read of riots. I saw them on TV. I was able to switch the channel to more pleasant thoughts. Not all had that privilege. The S. family lived as a minority in a larger African American community. To see the hatred that filled my TV screen, all they had to do was look out their windows.

Many people lost their businesses in the Martin Luther King riots. Some lost their lives. Much violence was racially targeted. The scarred psyches of many victims of violence shaped undoubtedly shaped political views for years to come.

My view of America is strongly influenced by the ethnic passions that broke up what used to be Yugoslavia. My mother's family is from Croatia. I heard plenty of bad things about the Serbs. One of my uncles went to a school where speaking Croatian was banned. If the schoolmaster heard Croatian being spoken, he would order the offending student to stand in front of the class. He would then spit in his mouth. In my grandparent's home, to say that a child was "behaving like a Serb" was a stinging insult.

Later in life, I worked with Serbs who had horrific stories to tell of Croats who collaborated with the Nazis. I would be unfaithful to history if I did not mention that the Croats had among their numbers the most brutal of Nazi henchmen who murdered Jews, Serbs and Romany with unsurpassed sadism.

Both my Croatian relatives and my Serbian friends had a well founded sense of aggrievedness. Both Serbs and Croats have a collective memory that shapes their thoughts and actions today. How does a person behave when someone from the "other side" is on their turf and at their mercy? Are they curious? Are they civil? Or are they openly hostile? If they feel hatred, do they act upon it?

I have heard it said that African Americans can't be racist, because the anger of the oppressed can not by definition be racism.

There is a street expression "To get the drop on someone." It means to have a weapon drawn and ready to use before your adversary has his weapon out. This is power over another human being at its most elementary level. When one group lives as a tiny minority in the midst of a larger group, it can be argued that the larger group "has the drop on them."

When Mrs. S. was living with her family in an overwhelmingly African American neighbourhood, they were not "the oppressors". They were visibly different and vulnerable. Living in a non white neighbourhood, they were for their neighbours a litmus test of character. By her account many failed the test.

The words of Martin Luther King should be a rallying cry to liberate all victims of bigotry and to expunge racism from the thinking of all. When looking for racists, we must not be guilty of ethnic profiling. Because racists come in all colours.

The ethnic composition of the United States is in flux. Although nationally, whites are in the majority, there are many areas where this is not true, where Hispanics, Asians or some other group is dominant. Whatever our race, creed or national background the temptation to hate those who are different is a human temptation. If our nation is to survive, we must be creative enough to recognise all forms of prejudice.

My mother used to separate us when we were fighting with the following words.

"If you can't be kind to each other, at least be civil!"

In this great land, there are some people who will never like each other. Of such individuals, the bottom line of civility is all that can be expected.

I am deeply grateful to G-d and my grandparents that I was not raised in the former Yugoslavia. Even at a distance, its passions and hatreds draw me to it. A land in which there is peace, where there is no bloody hatreds is a gift to its citizens that should be treasured.

The values underlying Martin Luther King Day are too important to let them degenerate into bland platitudes. The experience of the S. family, that was beaten when Martin Luther King was assassinated shows how bigotry can mutate to escape detection.

It is fitting that Martin Luther King's birthday be a national holiday. Everyone should feel challenged by its message. Everyone. Sphere: Related Content

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