PDT Staff Writer
It was 1963. I had graduated from high school that year and was doing the morning show at WKEE in Huntington, W.Va. I was one of the most self-absorbed people in the world, concerned very little about the social change that was going on around me. Oh sure, I was into the same protests as everyone else. I had hair down to my shoulders and a full beard. I was cool.
However, something profound was about to change my life. Make no mistake about it, I had been personally involved in trying to change racial situations that existed, privately as a one-on-one gesture, because many of my friends were black, and I could never understand the difference, or worse, the people who made a difference based on something as silly as skin pigmentation.
But like everyone else in America, I tuned in to see Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. make his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Watching the event began with a fear that had been perpetrated by some people that there would be a “mass riot” in Washington, D.C. It never happened. Instead, what I saw was a mass of people simply declaring their God-given rights, which had been awarded a century before but never implemented.
I saw a proud people who were asking for nothing more - nor less - than equality. You would have thought they were asking for the moon the way some people talked. In the south, a governor was blocking a young man and woman from going to college. Southern law enforcement people, hired to keep the peace, were using firehoses to disperse people. Churches were being bombed and people were being denied the right to vote in the United States of America.
I was never the same after I heard the greatest speech ever made on American soil.
“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges,” Dr. King’s voice echoed across the capital, in a way never heard before, nor since.
America needed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. like it had not needed a leader since the revolution - people demanding their rights and freedom from tyranny. After the Revolutionary War, white America benefitted greatly and began to prosper under a new Constitution. However, the black American was still not free in a declared free nation. They had greater patience than I have. It wasn’t until 1863 that Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which was supposed to give black Americans the same rights.
That did not happen. So here we were, a century later, a people asking for rights they had been granted for 100 years, but that had not been implemented. That is when I heard Dr. King and became ashamed and embarrassed that I had hung around with my black friends, played on the same baseball teams, and ate lunch with every day at school, and had not totally picked up on their plight.
I was embarrassed when white men with no education donned robes, hid behind masks, and killed innocent people, having the audacity to utilize the greatest symbol of freedom known to man, the cross. I was angered when signs said “Negro Restroom” or “No negroes served here.” If you don’t believe those things existed you have not been educated properly. Those conditions existed, and, as much as I hate to admit it, still exist in a defacto form today.
I watched my black and white TV screen as little girl’s bodies were taken from a burned out church. I saw police dogs used to attack people who were doing nothing more than asking for the same rights as everyone else. My heart began to break. Like a lot of people, I grew up that day. I grew up, but I didn’t mature until some heartless coward took Dr. King’s life.
In the months ahead I heard people from the nation’s inner cities asking for help, only to finally burn down buildings in their own neighborhoods, with the following response from the powers that be. “What’s the problem?”
Dr. King inspired millions of people, and we need to educate our children as to the importance of this great man. We need to tell our children about the plight of a people to find dignity and equality. We need to teach them that rights on paper are a far cry from rights that actually exist. An Emancipation Proclamation is a nice idea, but if people are still oppressed, it isn’t worth the paper it is printed on. Saying someone has the right to vote, then keeping them from the polling places is not progress. Saying to a people - go and create a life for you and your family - then not allowing them equal access to the pursuit of happiness is, to borrow a phrase from I Corinthians 13 - “As sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.”
So as I reflect on the effect that speech 50 years ago made on my life, I trust you will reflect on it as well, and not rest until there is complete equality for all people in this great nation. Until that exists, no one is free. I said - no one is free.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. For breaking news, follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLewisPDT.