Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day here in the United States. The one day of the year set aside to honor perhaps the greatest advocate and activist for civil rights there has ever been, we close our banks and no mail is delivered and all the schools are closed to commemorate the birthday of this man. Not everyone takes the day off from work but the Federal and state governments observe the occasion annually in order to show respect for someone who fought hard for what he believed in and who gave his life for the cause he loved.
I do not have a prejudiced bone in my body. This has set me apart from some of the people I've known over the years because here in the South there remains a pervasive feeling that those who are not white are somehow beneath the people who are. Despite all the progress that has been made in the last fifty years, here where I live I am sad to say that there are indeed those who do not appreciate the fact that everyone is indeed created equal. It pretty much goes unspoken because the law is such that bigotry in public will not be tolerated. Yet it is there. Believe me, it is there.
Why do I feel differently from so many of the people who hail from my corner of the country? I'll tell you why.
When I was a child, nine or ten, we lived in a subdivision in the south end of Whitfield County called Wood Park Estates. We had a lot of neighbors who were black and for the most part everyone got along well together. Two of the ladies who lived near us were Mrs. Sybil Nelson and Mrs. Bobbie Stidmon. They were black ladies who became great successes in their lives. Mrs. Nelson taught elementary school and Mrs. Stidmon was a supervisor for General Telephone. They were very sweet people who befriended me at my young age because of my love of reading. I cherish the memories of these two women because they taught me a lot about education, reinforcing what my own parents fostered in me about its importance, and setting examples by their lives that I really could be anything I wanted to be in life.
Mrs. Nelson and Mrs. Stidmon went for a walk every evening during the warm weather. Our subdivision was at the end of a four mile loop that included some industrialized areas as well as a rural road that met back up with the one that led to our neighborhood. One evening I asked the ladies if I could go walking with them. They said yes and my mother said it was okay as well. So off we set. I kept up with them with no trouble and the three of us talked and talked while we strolled along. We discussed books mostly; I remember that. During the last leg of our walk, we hit the rural road I mentioned, called Five Springs Road, and were heading home when a car drove past us and someone inside it put his head out the window and shouted: "Nigger!"
Mrs. Nelson and Mrs. Stidmon both went very quiet and I remember feeling total shock at what had just happened. They eventually started chatting again but the mood had been dampened to a degree that could not be rectified in the short distance back to Wood Park Estates.
After this incident, I thought a lot about what happened and I felt that it was a complete injustice that these two lovely ladies had been made to feel mortified by some fool disrespecting them because of the color of their skin. There was nothing right about it at all. The more I thought about it the more determined I became that I would never be guilty of doing such a cruel, stupid thing to another human being for as long as I lived. People can't help being what they are; I realized that even as a child. Nobody asks to be white, black, red, yellow, or any color at all. You are what you are because of the people you come from. Just because your skin is a certain color doesn't make you any better or any less than anybody else. Of this I have always been certain and this is one thing of which I have become more convicted still as I've grown older.
You don't hear of many incidents like that nowadays, and for this I am glad, but as I previously stated the feelings of bigotry and prejudice remains in our world, and not just here in the South either. I became acutely aware of this after Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008. The vitriol and vehement dislike of him by most conservatives I feel sure is rooted to a great extent in bigotry. I think this because even though a lot of people didn't like Bill Clinton I didn't hear or witness the type of insolence and downright disrespect as I've seen since Mr. Obama took office. It's something he must have expected but I don't think even he realized it would be as bad as it is. He's been slandered on almost every front and some people still insist that he wasn't born in the US even though he proved he was with his birth certificate. This type of thing has become a nonstop assault on him and his family.
In the past twenty years I've witnessed the bounds of prejudice extend to the Hispanic population and the LGBT segment of our nation. I'll admit that I felt jaded toward the Mexican people who first started moving to my area in the nineties because it was such a fast growing phenomenon. I remember going to town and hearing more Spanish in the store aisles than English. Yet, being me, I did some research and I became aware that the conditions in Mexico were so bad for these people that were escaping their homeland for the idea of a better life here in the US. These people were living three and four families to a house in some places because all they could find was work in the carpet mills and that didn't always pay very well at all. I also found out that most of them were sending a big portion of their paychecks to their family members who remained in Mexico to help out as much as they could there. My feelings changed toward the Hispanics here once I knew why they had left Mexico. I've never felt that I needed to escape my home and I think it is a crying shame that so many people in this world do.
The LGBT population suffers for who they are just because of who they are. They are denied the right to marry whomever they love in most states. They don't have the same protection under our tax laws as their heterosexual neighbors do. Many of them still feel that they have to hide who they are because they're afraid of being physically harmed if they don't. How is this right? It's not. Like any other race or minority the LGBT community is what it is because they are what they are and they didn't ask to be gay; they just are. It's not a psychological condition. It's not a case of nature versus nurture. Everyone is different. Different but equal. Our own Constitution says so. So why are they having to fight for rights that should already be theirs? It's a terrible injustice that can't be tolerated for much longer.
One hundred and fifty years ago the United States was embroiled in a war between the states that we now call The Civil War. It was a war that was fought over the right to freedom for everyone, black and white, in this country. Slavery may have been abolished because of it but it took over a century longer for black people in the US to begin enjoying the same level of freedom that their white counterparts took for granted. And in some ways they remain unequal in the eyes of their fellow Americans because so many people still look down on them, just as they look down on the Hispanics, the Indians, the Muslims, the LGBT, and anyone else who looks or acts different to what a majority of his country still think is the norm. And we tolerate it. And we shouldn't.
Last week at the Wal-Mart there was an older woman driving around looking for a parking spot near the store. When she saw one another car beat her to it and a man who she thought was Hispanic was the one who got the spot. She jumped out of her car and began berating this man for getting to the parking space before she did and she concluded her furious oration with the question: "Why aren't you in Mexico?" The man gave her an amused look and said, in a flat American voice without a hint of an accent: "Lady, my parents came from Cuba and I was born in Dallas, Texas. So you can just kiss my ass!"
Think about that and then lets talk about what real equality should be.
And I will never put down another human being who looks different from me. The memory of Mrs. Nelson and Mrs. Stidmon on Five Springs Road over thirty years ago, silenced by someone's prejudice, will always stay with me and it will always remind me that everyone really is created equal.