Something bothered me as I left the NAACP breakfast on Martin Luther King Day.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but something made me uncomfortable. I had just listened to a number of speeches by civic leaders who repeatedly employed the phrase, “the whites.” It wasn’t so much what was said, but the way it was said.
Doubtless, the African-American community has suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of white people throughout the years. Those are well-chronicled and the day is intended to serve as a reminder of the hardships suffered at the hands of ignorant, misguided people.
But while the speakers, from N.H. State Rep. Rogers Johnson to U.S. Congressman Marty Meehan, to NAACP President Erik Shaw, encouraged diversity and racial harmony, there was an underlying message that racial equality and opportunity is still out of reach. And the problem, it seems, is because we have a Republican administration in the White House. I was almost waiting for Meehan to say, “The Man is keeping us down.”
I do not know what it is like to be a member of society’s minority. I never lived in a day when a black student couldn’t get a desk in the college of their choice. I have never seen “whites only” drinking fountains or restrooms. I was never forced to sit in the back of the bus because of the color of my skin.
But I did grow up with a racially insensitive dad who routinely tossed racial epithets around without thought. But I also had a mother who taught me right from wrong. She taught me at an early age to be color blind. She taught me to look at a person’s eyes, not their skin color. I would no more judge a person by the color of their skin than by the color of their hair. I vividly remember waking up on the morning of April 5, 1968, the morning after the Rev. King Jr. was assassinated. My mother was watching the news and there were tears in her eyes. That brought tears to my eyes.
At the NAACP breakfast, I took a quick look around the room and estimated that 20 percent of the crowd was white. Most of them had checkbooks with them.
That same day, in Harlem, U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton said the House of Representatives has been “run like a plantation.” And y’all know what I’m talkin’ about. Then there was New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and his dream that one day his beloved city will be “chocolate,” because that’s the way God wants it to be.
After the breakfast I made my way to the Paul Tsongas Arena in Lowell where the Lura Smith Family held its annual Day of Celebration. I saw many of the same faces that attended the NAACP breakfast earlier that day. But the mood was different. Lura Smith, a black woman, knows the true meaning of diversity. Hers was a spiritual celebration that inspires people of all races, creeds and persuasions to be the best people they can be. At the Tsongas Arena, located, by the way, on Dr. Martin Luther King Way, young and old, black and white, Hispanic and Asian, all sat down at the table of brotherhood, just the way King wanted it.
Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
I heard a lot of speeches that day about preserving King’s message for the next generation. To the black leaders I say this: Be careful of the example you set.
Dennis Shaughnessey’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.