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America was different in the summer of 1963, when Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
My Aunt Dorothy never married even though she was born in the early 1900s, when staying single was beyond odd. She chose an unconventional path, getting a master’s degree in sociology and becoming a high school teacher in East Moline, Illinois, where she taught history. Her passion was the Civil War and her favorite president was Abraham Lincoln.
It was while I was visiting Aunt Dorothy, at the age of five, that I met a black man for the first time. It happened while we were grocery shopping at a Piggly Wiggly. He had skin the color of my mother’s mahogany dining table, eyes that matched and the oddest hair I’d ever seen. He was stocking shelves and was impossibly tall from my perspective, which put his hands at my eye level. I couldn’t help but notice how the deep color of his skin turned to ivory on his palms. From my child’s point of view, it looked as if he’d lowered himself into a giant cup of coffee and only the inside of his hands, where he’d held on to the edge of the cup, remained the color of my own. I knew it was impolite to stare, but it was hard not to and I noticed how he called my aunt, “Miss Calvert.”
Dorothy took me to the Moline public library every Monday and while she was off looking for books, I noticed an Ebony magazine in the periodicals section. It looked similar to the Life magazines that came to my parents’ house — it had the same advertisements and the same style of articles — but everyone had brown skin, black hair and dark eyes. Was this a parallel world? It felt like something forbidden to even look in that magazine, like if you got caught doing it, you would be sent to your room without your supper.
That’s because back in those days, there were no African Americans in the Denver neighborhood where I grew up, none in the small towns in Nebraska where my grandparents lived, none in my school, none on TV or in the movies and none in mainstream magazines. When you saw a black person it was quite the phenomenon because it was understood that you stayed in your world and they stayed in theirs.
That same summer, my Aunt Dorothy took me on a road trip to Florida, stopping to see every Civil War battlefield and museum along the way. Our itinerary included a drive through the Deep South, where I saw a faded sign on a restaurant door in Alabama that said “Whites Only.” We had stopped for lunch, but when Dorothy saw the sign, she told me to get back in the car: it wasn’t a good place to eat, she said.
As we drove through the town looking for another restaurant, I spotted a black girl about my age standing on the corner. I missed my friends back home and, feeling as if I was now “familiar” with Negroes — as they were called in those days — I smiled and waved. The little girl saw me and spun around. With hate burning in her eyes, she flipped me the bird. I wasn’t sure at that age what her gesture meant, but there was no mistaking the contempt in her eyes.
Much later, I realized that the trip with my Aunt Dorothy was the very same summer that Martin Luther King, Jr., led his march on Washington D.C., where he delivered his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech and earned a permanent place on the FBI’s covert operation list as a dangerous radical. His life ended a few years later when he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember seeing the story in the The Rocky Mountain News and asking my mother how it was possible that important men like President Kennedy and now Martin Luther King could be murdered in the United States of America. She didn’t have an answer.
I’m not that old, so it hasn’t been all that long since America lived a very segregated existence. A lot has changed since then. And although it’s far from ideal, the fact that we have a second term president who is black, with a black wife and black children — all living in an ironically named White House — is something my Aunt Dorothy would have never believed possible. Not because she didn’t believe in equal rights, but because the America she knew would have never allowed it.
It takes visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., to change old ideas that are ingrained into our belief system and accepted as truth when they’re not — visionaries who have a dream and the courage to announce to the world:
“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character … I have 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…’”
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.