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I am going back in history this week. (I am old enough to do that.) I was home from my sophomore year in college in 1963 and on Aug. 28, sat mesmerized as I watched the March on Washington on CBS. For what seems like the entire day, I watched speaker after speaker, as well as some of my favorite performers — Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and others.
And then it was time for Martin Luther King to speak. Young, really unwise in the way of the world, I sat with my mother and watched what I knew must be the greatest example of oratory, I would ever see or hear.
I had gone to high school in the panhandle of Florida in a town where people of color had to sit upstairs at the town movie, could not even go to the drive-in and had to be very careful about which water fountain they used. I don’t know where they shopped for clothes, certainly not at Turners, Daffins, or the Parisian.
There were no restaurants in town that served people of color, though there were places on the red clay roads than ran through the county that were known to us teens at “juke joints.”
But my example at home was a different one than some of the kids I went to school with, and more than once when I spoke out in defense of Freedom Riders and the need for all citizens to have the right to vote, I was called a certain epithet.
While my parents were “no goody two shoes,” they did teach my brothers and I to respect all people, and no common slang was used when referring to others.
Though we were probably less than middle class, we had a comfortable life with both parents working. But even my mother ran into a bit of difficulty when it was learned at the bank where she was employed that she was paying the woman who cleaned our house and did the ironing the grand sum of $4 a day. The going rate was $2 to $3 at the time.
The wife of the president of the bank informed Mother that “When in Rome, one does as the Romans do.” That didn’t change Mother’s mind … and she kept her job!
So there we were that day, watching Dr. King address a crowd that surely was the largest ever to gather in front of the Lincoln Memorial and it is a day I have never forgotten.
Years later, in 1978, one of the students in my 12th grade honors English class asked if he could say something on MLK’s birthday.
He stood up and recited the entire speech delivered by Dr. King in 1963, complete with emotion. This from a young man, very conservative and white. He was very opinioned in many ways, a big supporter of President Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War, but he recognized the greatness of the moment and the content of that speech.
These past few days, as we approach the 50th anniversary of the speech and excerpts are shown on television, I am transported back to when I first heard it and I get chills and a tear in my eye. So much that was dreamed about in that speech has come to be a way of our lives now.
In the little panhandle town where I attended school, the 2011 homecoming queen was a person of color; blacks and whites play together on the football team, march together in the band, and cheer together on the sidelines. Neighborhoods are integrated.
There is not discrimination evidenced at the restaurants or the movie.
So much that is heartening. Yet, we have too many incidents that seem to be regressive, from the voting changes being enacted in the South to the hatred of the president on the part of some. It is clear there is still progress to be made.
Jarrett Boyd is the retired director of Carroll County Public Library and now resides in Madison, Ind.