I was about ten years old when I became aware, vaguely, that there was such a thing as the Civil Rights movement. It was 1962 and as a white kid in a suburb of a northern city, the struggle against centuries-old traditions and hatred didn’t really impact me, but when I saw the news clips on TV I remember thinking “what in the world are the white people in the South so upset about?” The black people just wanted to vote and go to school; normal everyday activities that we seemed to take for granted where I lived. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me; it was just common sense that as long as they were citizens and old enough, they should be able to do what they want. After all, this was America; the land of the free etc. etc.
Of course as I grew up I learned that there were a lot more issues beyond the superficial things as basic human rights. The pathology of changing traditions and teaching people that the old ways of seeing the world were not the best takes a lot of time and trauma. Perhaps subconsciously I knew that being “different” — whether it involved skin color or sexual orientation — wasn’t itself a bad thing; it was how other people who didn’t share that difference saw you and reacted to it that stood in the way of the everyday. And as I became more aware of how deeply ingrained human behavior is and how often the first reaction to change is negative, I realized just what people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were up against. As recently as this weekend when I casually mentioned to someone that today was a holiday, he came back with a lame crack about cutting a watermelon.
By remembering the life of Dr. King, we are not honoring just a man and the struggle for civil rights for a minority in this country. We are recognizing that what he did touches all of our lives, and not just by calling our attention for one day to what he dreamed about. As so many have said, the battle for one is a battle for all, and it isn’t about winning as much as it is about making what was once a radical idea — overturning a terrible tradition — a part of our everyday life. Dr. King stood not for special rights but for the simple equality that ten-year-old kids understand but is somehow lost on older people who should know better.