Martin Luther King, Jr
The following story is told with not a small amount of shame. I ask the forgiveness of the reader for the ignorance of my long past youth. —Jean Mcgavin
You've Got To Be Carefully Taught,
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
— Oscar Hammerstein, South Pacific
I grew up in a white neighborhood in Virginia in the 50's. We were all carefully taught. Our history book taught us that the Negroes were happy on the plantations and that the masters treated them well. The book told us that when the masters would have a fancy dress ball in the plantation house, the slaves would sit around their camp fires playing their fiddles and when the masters would go out for a fox hunt, the slaves would go out to hunt for raccoons. We were taught that the day that the first slaves were brought to America was a “Red Letter Day”. We were taught that this was good, just as church was good, eating your vegetables was good. This was not something to ponder or question – it was just life. This was our education, and we were carefully taught to hate, to see people of color as the “other”, as less than human, and that this was good.
I was in 9th grade and preparing for a class trip to New York City. It was April 4, 1968. My mother and I had been shopping for a new outfit for my trip and we had just left the shopping mall when the news broke in on the radio that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. We listened for a few moments. I had no idea of the importance of Martin Luther King, Jr. or what impact his death might carry. I had no idea either of the value of a human being, or even that a person of color was a human being. Hearing the news and having been carefully taught in Virginia, knowing how much disturbance Martin Luther King, Jr. had caused within the white community, I casually responded, “Good riddance”. My mother, who rarely spoke in anger, flashed at me, “Don't ever say that about another human being!” and I was stunned. I thought I was saying the right thing. I thought that I was being a good girl. I was saying what I had been taught. But I see this moment clearly, like a piece of film. This moment, 41 years ago, stays with me with the pain and sting of a slap in the face. It is in that moment that the crack in the foundation of my education formed. All of a sudden I was presented with a flaw, the incongruity in my education, causing racism to no longer be an absolute. It was now something that one could evaluate, ponder, question and perhaps ultimately reject.
The next day, as cities across the U.S. erupted in riots and flames, reflecting the anger and grief that gripped the black community, our trip to New York City was cut short. Our tour through the slums of Harlem was canceled and my perception of the solidity of racism continued to crumble. Cities were burning and were not good places for bus loads of white teenagers. We were told to keep our lights off so the Coloreds wouldn't be able to see our white faces and attack our buses. The boys boasted of their fathers' gun collections and how they would “shoot any nigger” who came to their house to attack them. We drove around Washington on our way home rather than through the city because so much of the city was in flames.
When we met our families, mothers were in tears and there was a great deal of hugging and sighs of relief. But for me, there was no relief. I felt a part of the riots, a part of the confusion and disturbance. My illusions were shattered. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death, and the ensuing social convulsions left me with questions and confusion about what my education had meant and in my gentle Virginia countryside I began to understand that where I had once seen pride and glory, I would now see brutality and ignorance.
The shame of my initial reaction to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death has stayed with me all these years and has pushed me to constantly reexamine my views of the differences in people. I took great pains to raise my children to respect other people, in part by sending them to an international school. Perhaps I would have rejected racism eventually without the tragedy of Dr. King’s assassination, but I can’t be certain. Perhaps the racism of thousands of other people like me was shaken at its foundation by the death of Dr. King and in that way his death gave us redemption and a second chance at being people of compassion and decency.