Forty-six years ago at the end of January, I was packing my bags to travel to Tuskegee Institute near Montgomery, Ala. where I would be an exchange student during the spring semester. I would be one of eight whites in a student body of 3,000. I was there when Dr. King was killed.
At that time a white guy going to a black school was a novelty. A black guy named James Meredith needed federal marshals for him to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Lynching still happened in the South.
James Meredith has seen a lot of change since he enrolled at Ole Miss: an African American president named Obama, Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, General Colin Powell perhaps the most respected man in America a few years ago.
And if some of the old German American Forest Parkers would come back from the grave, they most likely wouldn’t recognize their old digs. Half of the Middle School with African American descent, a black commissioner, black folk on the Chamber of Commerce, black Christians singing gospel songs in church buildings where hymns had once been sung in German .
To show you how much things have changed, when I wrote a column in the 1980s arguing that it was time for us to elect a black commissioner to represent that growing constituency in town, one of my parishioners called me and said, “Are you crazy? Do you want a burning cross on our church’s front lawn?” She was serious.
Now days no one blinks an eye when a biracial couple walks into Louie’s. When people noted that Herman Caine and Barack Obama were both black, most folks weren’t surprised that two men of the same race could come down on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Most voters judged them by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
In terms of race relations, a lot has changed since 1968. In terms of human nature, we haven’t changed at all. We’ve just traded in our old vices for new ones.
For example, last year under 20 percent of Americans smoked tobacco compared to 42 percent in 1965. That’s good, of course, but we’ve traded that compulsive behavior in for sitting in front of electrified screens for hours and hours, one result of which is an epidemic of obesity in this country. For every mile we’ve progressed in terms of race relations, to raise another issue, it seems we’ve lost an equal amount of ground in income disparity.
So, although race relations have improved markedly since I had my eyes opened regarding a lot of things while a student at Tuskegee, it’s no surprise to me that race is still an issue. So is greed, child abuse, gender discrimination, pollution, political graft, and on and on. It’s the waterbed principle. You push down on a bump that appears in one spot and it will appear in another. Our human nature is so wonderful in its potential and so less than perfect in how we live it out.
I dare to say that this town is blessed with a lot of folks whom I would categorize as “good people.” Almost all who fit that category are, in my experience, men and women who see themselves very realistically. They recognize that they have been blessed with gifts, but at the same time are very aware that there are forces inside them that tempt them to use those gifts for selfish, destructive ends. That’s not being pessimistic about human nature. That’s being a mature adult.
We remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. two days ago. The best way to honor his memory is not to pretend that we’re living in a post racial society, but to get our own prejudices out in the clear light of day where we can all acknowledge and manage them. That, for most of us, is the best we can hope to do.