I have always known who Martin Luther King Jr. was. Always.
In and of itself, that statement may not be remarkable. Dr. King was a powerful orator and a deeply driving force for civil rights in the USA. He had a great affect on millions of people, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics and millions of others not enumerated. Billions upon billions of people should know who Martin Luther King was.
I’m certainly not a scholar of MLK, I know the man was as flawed as he was inspiring - but really aren’t we all? I honestly wonder the degree of character assassination suffered at the hands of the FBI. I am happy to accept Dr. King as the persona I know - as a man of peace and vision.
The reason I feel that to be a special statement is that I’m a white, Canadian man that probably doesn’t have right or reason to feel such a connection to Dr. King. By default I represent the privileged class that has the most to lose by ceding rights and powers to others. Not for a moment do I believe that to be true. Treating all people with respect and in equity makes us all greater beings.
I do know that in as long as I can remember I have always known the phrase, “I Have a Dream,” and I have always understood that phrase to mean that all of us are meant to be equal. My mother spoke it often, and today, on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, I’ve been thinking about her.
She would have been 16 years old when Dr. King gave that speech. I struggle to imagine the impact such a speech would have had upon a young woman in Winnipeg, so far removed from the American South, so far removed from segregation, but aware of racism and discrimination enough that the speech was able to touch her entire being and through her shape my own life.
“I Have a Dream!” she would echo. When she was exasperated that I had not cleaned my room, it would come out as a light hearted barb. Looking backwards, when I had shamefully treated someone with disrespect and contempt the words, “I Have a Dream” would be said seriously and with all due meaning.
My mother was born in Germany after the Second World War. The daughter of a Russian artillery soldier and the Polish “Angel of Mercy” who attended him in the prisoner of war camp. I don’t know all the details, many of them are shrouded in the struggle to survive and find a safe place to raise a family in post-war Europe. Eventually, after much hardship, my grandparents found their way to Canada and settled in the north end of Winnipeg in a tiny, beautiful home where I knew love, kindness, great music and even better food.
I have shadowy fragments of my mother’s childhood. Once, just before they tore it down, we were taken to the home they first lived in when the arrived in Canada. A mere shack, hardly habitable for a bachelor, let alone a family with four young children.
I once had a powder blue parka. To this day I love powder blue as a colour and I’d proudly wear that coat now, but as an elementary kid I was teased mercilessly over that coat. It was trying on my mother because she did not understand my love/hate relationship with a parka. She only understood the sacrifice she had made to provide me with suitable clothing. She let slip, “When I was your age I was lucky to have a coat at all.“ Possibly one of those parental exaggerations, but from the perspective of today I’m not so certain that it wasn’t exactly as she described.
The deepest knowledge I have of my mother’s childhood, or perhaps adolescence, happened when we had time alone together. I would have been around high school age and made the trip into Calgary while she attended University to get her degree in Social Work. I don’t remember the exact circumstance, I don’t remember the whole conversation, but her words have been seared into my very soul. We were talking about “fitting in” versus being your own self. At some point in this conversation she confided the very taunt that formed her person. When she was in school she had been called a “damned dirty DP.“ She spat it out when she told me that day. She had to explain to me that a “DP” meant “Displaced Person” and I had a staggeringly hard time imagining that to be any cause for discrimination or abuse. We are all immigrants in some shape or fashion, varying only in the timing of when we or our ancestors arrived where we are today. Unless you happen to be the fortunate few living in the cradle of humanity somewhere in Africa, and even then your ancestors probably migrated around some.
It saddens me immensely to consider the people displaced in the world today. Particularly with the current news from Syria, of course, but the thought of anyone struggling to live a life of safety. It is also sad to know people amongst us suffer from horrible mistreatment and not the dignity they deserve from what we consider a modern and civil society.
Throughout her life, my mother had friends of all ages, all heritages, both genders. She wasn’t perfect, but she extended a welcoming hand to anyone and everyone around her.
And she taught me “I Have a Dream.”
A speech with such impact to a 16 year old girl it still echoes in her grandchildren.
We have not yet achieved Dr. King’s dream. We need to keep striving. But we have not turned back, together we have made significant strides and we have not forsaken his dream. I pledge for the next 50 years that I will not judge a person by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character, and I will do my very best to give everyone I meet the courtesy to consider them good and kind until they prove otherwise.
If I fail, and I sometimes will, I need to be challenged to live better. I am, after all, just the son of a damned dirty DP. My love for her must live through living up to the standard she set.
If you don’t know the speech, you are now challenged to read or listen to it yourself. Thank you, Dr. King. May your dream come true soon and forever.