In 1955 Martin Luther King, Jr. gained a national audience when he helped lead a boycott against segregated buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955 my family moved from a small town in northwest Pennsylvania to a small town in central Florida (Plant City). I would hear the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. on television coverage in an atmosphere of Jim Crow laws.
- My elementary, junior high and high schools were all white students.
- My church only had white members.
- People of color literally lived in an area of Plant City on the “other” side of the railroad tracks. To this day I have never been in that section of town.
- The Mascot of my high school was, and is, a Southern Colonel, a Planter. There is no way to disguise the intention. It was not to honor the agricultural workers in the fields around town which to this day grow the famous winter strawberries just now coming to the market.
- No person of color could go to the movies on the main street side of town.
- No restaurant would serve people of color and whites.
- There were separate entrances and waiting rooms at the train station.
- I remember my biggest shock was to see water fountains in the five and dime store – one labeled “white” which I could use, and one labeled “colored”.
It took a great deal of courage for a minister of a church to publicly speak out against the injustices and to organize others to join him in protest and actions for change. People did not want to change. The idea of loving one another was fine as long as no one had to associate with one another. There was a lot of loving, as long as the other person, particularly a black person, stayed in their place. As a teenager, I knew intellectually and morally something was wrong, but I too did not want to “rock the boat”. I admit, I stood with all the others at football games and sang “Dixie”.
This national holiday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, invites us to think about our own attitudes. Do we acknowledge something is wrong in our minds, but put off saying or doing anything about it in our words and actions? How much are we willing to let the experience of the other inconvenience us? How do we want our church to address issues of discrimination – silently or boldly? What is Jesus calling us to do?
May this holiday be a time of reflection for each of us.