Today is Martin Luther King's birthday. Unlike most everyone I know, I did not have the day off. The roads were practically deserted when I drove to work this morning - no traffic at all, not even coming up on the causeway, where there is usually a slowing because apparently people get confused by the prospect of going up a gentle hill.
I was listening to NPR, as I usually do on the way to and from work, and they had a short segment where they had members of the Boys Choir and the Girls Choir of Harlem reading Dr. King's famous speech. I've heard snippets of King giving the speech, of course, and have read excerpts here and there. But I'm ashamed to say that I have never actually *heard* the entire speech all the way through.
By the time I reached work I was nearly in tears. The power and the beauty of those words ring just as deep and powerful as they did when they were first uttered aloud by Dr. King himself.
My older sister teaches second grade, so they have today off from school. But she said that on Friday she was talking to her students about who Dr. King was, and what he stood for. When she got to discussing segregation, her students were appalled. It wasn't just that it was a horrible thing - it was that they could not even believe that such conditions could have ever existed. No way, they kept insisting. Surely she had to be making it all up, right?
They are young yet - only in second grade. And they have the benefit of attending a school where there are children from many races and cultures, in a place in this country where liberal values are far stronger in our society than the old school ideas of the South - sexism, racism, and elitism. And they are too young yet to have experienced the more subtle forms of discrimination, or if not too young to have experienced them, too young to really grasp what it all meant. They are used to thinking of their fellow classmates as just other little kids - nothing more and nothing less.
I wonder, listening to that speech this morning, read by children older than my sister's second graders, how many of them would have such a hard time envisioning a time when segregation and discrimination was the norm. I wondered whether Dr. King would have been proud of the progress we have made so far, or disappointed at the overwhelming work that still has to be done.
We all have our own prejudices, based on culture, gender, age, race, and color of skin. What we do with those prejudices, however, is our own choice. Do we act on them and refuse to look any further than our own self-imposed blinders? Or do we overcome them, and try our hardest to treat every person as an individual, looking for their character and their values instead of at their physical appearance.
What a wonderful world it would be if every child could be just as appalled as those little second graders were - that anyone could dare to think that someone was less of a person because of where they were born or the color of their skin; that someone deserves hatred and scorn because of where they come from or who they love. We have come so far since Dr. King first made that speech. But we still have so much further to go.