I’ve lived through a lot of history. That doesn’t make me special — just old.
I’m fortunate my years haven’t yet gotten too heavy to comfortably carry. So far I can pack them up and trundle off to about anywhere.
Why I’ve been so blessed is a mystery to me. It must be genetics and blind luck because I can assure you it isn’t something I especially deserve.
What germinated this train of thought about the passing of history was last week’s celebration of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At the time it simply came over news outlets as an impressive moment.
I was born in 1941 so grew through my teens and into young adulthood during the desegregation battles. My television and I lived through the events as they flowed.
I’d be lying if I said I took positions or participated in any manner from any perspective. Looking back I’m amazed I was as totally clueless about the import of what was going on around me in those times.
I was just a passive, disinterested white kid ambling through the segregated world, which was all I had ever known so it seemed perfectly normal. But it was far from “normal,” and had I actually thought about people being excluded from restaurants, hotels, schools and even bathrooms, perhaps I would’ve figured a few things out.
But I didn’t have any of those thoughts as I was way too busy being the center of the universe. My life consisted of girls, jukeboxes, dancing, guns and fishing poles, which left little room for much else, certainly nobody’s lack of rights.
Note that cars weren’t on my list of priorities. Wheels were surely necessary to get me from A to B and back, but I couldn’t care less what they were rolling under. I still don’t care a whit about what I drive, which is obvious to anybody who sees me driving around in my dirty ’98 325,000-mile Isuzu.
But giving tiny credit to my self-absorbed brain, I finally begin developing a conscience about the denial of basic rights based purely upon color. Those analytical brain cells first woke up in 1959 when I went off to Chapel Hill.
Until then I’d never attended an integrated school, never even thought about it one way or another. UNC at Chapel Hill was my first racially integrated school experience, and I didn’t even notice. Black, white, yellow, brown, everybody read from the same textbooks, heard the same lectures and took the same tests.
I’d like to say I put deep thought into it back then, but that’d be a lie. There simply wasn’t anything to ponder. Going to school with other races was just going to school.
Martin Luther King had the right message and came along at precisely the right time and molded the country. And, as many great leaders, left all too soon.
Now snake oil salesmen are peddling racial strife in his shadow. I can almost visualize Roman soldiers and a pair of dice.
Otis Gardner’s column appears here weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.