Mom and I went out the door hand in hand and headed to the bus stop. Mom didn’t drive when we were little so the two of us did our weekly trek to catch the bus for downtown. We would do our errands and then do our grocery shopping and finally take a taxi home with our treasures and groceries.
Three-year-old me ran up the steps and found a seat for us near the front of the bus. Most of the people that rode the bus back in the day knew each other. This day there was a man that was unfamiliar. Something was a bit different about him. I tried to whisper to Mom but my voice came out a bit loud. I asked how come that man had such a dirty face. She shushed me but too late. The man had heard my question. He told me that his skin was a different color than mine. I asked him why and he answered that he was born that way. He asked Mom if I wanted to touch his skin. She quietly declined and I climbed up in her lap.
It was the first time I had ever seen a man of color in person. I tried not to stare. He was very nice and smiled at me when he caught me looking. I think he could tell that I meant no offense but that my youthful curiosity had gotten the best of me.
I was raised in a small town in south-central Wisconsin. There were not many people of different races or colors when I was little. It was the 1950s and it was a different time.
When I was in the 4th grade, I was driving with my Dad. We went through a part of town where there were homes that were kind of run down and not as well kept as some other neighborhoods. I asked Dad if this would be concerned the slums of our town. He frowned and pulled the car over. He said that it was not right to label a neighborhood that way and said I shouldn’t do it again.
When I was in High School, I joined the forensics team. We had to pick a famous person that we admired and write an essay about them. I had been fascinated with the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and chose him to write about. My talk centered on his “I Have a Dream” speech and his words moved something deep inside me.
In August of 1963, Dr. King led the march on Washington for Jobs and Freedom by some 210,000 People. The demonstrators came from all parts of the country: one-quarter of them were white.
1963 marked the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. King stated “when the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Dr. King went on to use his check metaphor to say that “America has given the negro a bad check; a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.”
I moved to Iowa when I was in my early 20s. The town I lived and worked in was segregated by color and real estate. I worked at the local television station part-time on the weekends and often got into discussions with a young black reporter that worked there. Randy was bright and articulate. He would argue with me that it was wrong that people like myself were raised in “lily-white communities”. I explained that while I had not grown up with a diverse group of people, I had been raised to treat all people equally. He explained that through the ignorance of exclusion, my view was not helping the black cause. Coincidentally, Dr. King was assassinated on my birthday in 1968.
I could go on to describe other instances where my naivety concerning the plight of the African Americans challenged my opinions.
I remember a good friend of mine told me that until a person walked into a room and no one could tell what color they were, we would not have a truly integrated America.
Today, these issues are more present than ever before. We watched with horror the murdering of George Floyd. We have watched and participated in the demonstrations and still have no answers.
I can no longer claim the innocence of youth. I do understand that my lack of understanding could be looked at as ignorance. And yet, in the words of author Viktor E. Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, “From all this, we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people.”