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Monday, January 20, 2014

King called us to be more

In the raging heat of the summer of 1962, racial slurs were all too common.

What is stunning is that some were lashed out in disdain by, of all people, a White House Secret Service agent responsible for protecting the president of the United States, John F. Kennedy. The target of the verbal venom was his fellow agent, Abraham Bolden, the first black Secret Service agent handpicked by President Kennedy himself.

The point being that the times were such that lynchings were frequent. It was taken as convention that blacks had their designated “place” in society. It was understood that certain jobs and careers were “not for them.” This belief was so entrenched in the American psyche that it had worked its way to the highest echelons of JFK’s Secret Service staff.

Now 78, Bolden recounted in my interview of him in 2012: “I heard the president referred to by some of his closest agents as ‘n——r lover,’ and I heard two of them talking, and they were saying — and this was going on in the White House — that if anyone would take a shot at the president or try to assassinate him, they wouldn’t do their job.”

 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., no stranger to violence and racism, saw American society was composed of an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy. What Dr. King boldly proposed was a new American culture based on: “they is us” and “us is them.” There is but once race on this planet: the Human Race.

So as we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Day on Monday, we need to ask: How did we get from there to here?

Change of attitude.

It was at the University of Syracuse on July 15, 1965, that Dr. King continued to map out his vision for the equality of all Americans. At the core was education. I am reminded of how, three years ago, a returning Afghanistan veteran told me about the sacrifice of his fallen comrades.

“The Afghan people now have a chance; we have built schools and created a safe environment for them to hear new ideas and implement them in their own lives.”

Bingo!

In Syracuse, Dr. King thundered: “We must move from words to deeds. Are we so doctrinaire that we fear to press vigorously the demand for immediate establishment of quality education?

“Fundamentally, we are a nation of moral people whose founding codes of government and individual ethics have been shaped by principles of justice and equality. One of the most difficult lessons we have learned in the freedom struggle is that change is not self-operative, that you cannot depend upon American institutions to function without prodding and pressuring.

“Any real change in the status quo depends on continued creative action to sharpen the conscience of the nation and to establish a climate in which even the most recalcitrant elements are forced to admit that change is necessary.”

Essentially, if you don’t like the way things are, change them ... nonviolently. It was a call not for antagonism but for confrontation. And confronting not only the powers that be but ourselves as well.

 Is this all society can be? Is there nothing left for us to achieve? Do we settle in apathy and compliance? Can we be ... more?

We lead and don’t follow. Our priorities seem scoured.

In our dollar-based value system, Americans and Canadians, especially, pay entertainers — sports or otherwise — out-of-proportion salaries while we neglect our most essential resource: our children. By denying the appropriate status to schools and prestige to our teachers, we are denying not only our children but their very future as well.

No parent I know would ever want that. Our children are the one and only priority.

A school is an environment in which ideas can flourish and evolve from complex brain impulses into concrete strategies to move society forward out of stagnation — for the betterment of mankind. And after all, isn’t it ideas that send us all to the stars and beyond?

“It would speed up the day when the fears of insecurity, the doubts clouding our future, will be transformed into radiant confidence, into glowing excitement to reach creative goals and into an abiding moral balance,” Dr. King said in his Syracuse speech.

We must never lose track of the spark of an idea in a child’s eye and that is at the core of American values. It is what the rest of the world envies. After all, they just might be the next JFK, Abraham Bolden or Martin Luther King.

 “Where justice will roll down like waters and where the brotherhood of man will be undergirded by a secure and expanding prosperity for all.”

Amen.