This week is full of talk about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The Civil Rights movement looms large in my life. I spent my college years in Memphis where King’s death is a huge part of the fabric of that place. I wrote a paper about the integration of my school, which affected me deeply. My school integrated in 1967. The very next year, of course, King was shot while supporting the Sanitation Workers’ strike. They were striking for better wages and conditions after the death of two workers who were crushed while escaping the rain (they weren’t allowed into the office because they were black). I had felt the racial tension everywhere while at school, but doing this paper made real some of the reasons for that tension. How do you recover from experiencing violence and death perpetrated on you because of your race? How do you recover from people thinking you’re not as smart, capable, or valuable because of your race? It was a deep wound that could be felt even 25 years later.
While I was in school, I protested the closing of the Lorraine Hotel where King was shot and which had become a place for low-income residents. It was slated to become a civil rights museum (and it eventually did) with some unfortunately pretty insensitive displays (including the ability to stand where King did and have a laser beam “shoot” you). I protested Apartheid, of course, and worked to divest the college and participated in a conversation with some big donors who had investments in South Africa and who were slated to build a new building on campus. We lost that fight, too.
And while I’m not as active in direct action on Civil Rights, I still live my life according to the ideals and principles that we are all created equal, but that it is sometimes work to make that equality real. Systems, individuals, etc. are often working against equality: racial, gender, and economic. I work every day to convey those values, to investigate ways that inequality and discrimination creep into everyday interactions. We’ve come a long way, for sure, but there is a lot more to do.