But I was wrong.
On the night of April 4, 1968, there was a knock on my college dorm room door. It swung open and a leading vocal racist on our hall stood at the door with a smile on his face and said, “They got the King!” His reference was to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
He knew I would be a person to taunt with this news as we had been in several heated conversations about racial attitudes and actions. He knew I was proactively in favor of racial and ethnic diversity, and that I saw everyone as a person of worth created in the image of God to live and to love.
I knew he was a hard-core racist. He had previously predicted that someone would kill King. He thought that would be a good thing. Sad. He was consumed with racial hatred, intentionally offensive with his language and proud to tell anyone his views on non-whites and non-Americans.
I did not grow up in a home, church or community completely free of racism. I suggest none of us did. Some form of subtle racism is present everywhere. I did grow up in a home where the ideal and the principles I was taught led me to embrace attitudes and actions that sought to promote racial and ethnic diversity, and to embrace equally for all. God loves all equally.
I would never suggest that every word I speak, every action I take or every attitude I possess is always perfect regarding racism. I — like you — fail from time to time in this area. Sin is even an appropriate term to use.
I grew up in diverse racial, ethnic, religious, socioeconomic and cultural settings in Baltimore and Philadelphia. From as early in my life as I can remember, I attended public schools where significant diversity was present. Many school friends represented this diversity. My family and church friends typically did not. These settings were more culturally captive.
I am thankful for the ministry and networking of my father — a Baptist minister, pastor and denominational worker — that allowed me to experience diversity through various denominational meetings. I was pleased to be in the presence of Martin Luther King Jr. as a 13-year-old at a meeting of historically white and historical black Baptist denominations in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1964.
I am thankful for the ministry of my mother whose personal ministry efforts took her into settings of racial and ethnic diversity especially through her commitment to literacy missions involving adult reading and writing and English as a second language. I experienced through her the deep personal relationships she had with people of other races and ethnicities.
I am thankful for a wife who broke up with her boyfriend at the end of our sophomore year of college because he could not understand why she wanted to waste her summer working with black children in the inner city of New Orleans, and to her it was a nature ministry and a spiritual calling. I did not know they had broken up when I took the risk of asking her out on a date at the beginning of our junior year. Now we have been married for more than 40 years.
By the time I went to college in my family’s home state of North Carolina in 1967, I assumed that while racism had not disappeared that at least some significant progress was being made. I discovered that not near as much progress was being made as I thought. The knock on my door on the evening of April 4, 1968, was just one incident that showed a lack of progress.
I can give an accounting of times and places over the past almost 50 years when I hoped racism was about to become a thing of the past only to be surprised that it often showed up in ugly — even violent — ways. Often I have thought to myself, “By now racism must be a thing of the past”. But it is not.
Even while writing this article I was in a meeting of leaders from various congregations throughout the North America where someone played the race card. They did not do it to use racism to win their point in a dialogue. They did it out of the pain of racism that still expresses itself to so many ways and events.
Would you join with me to pray, rethink attitudes, modify actions, advocate and act out a lifestyle where racism can become a thing of the past? Can it? Or I am too idealistic?