Like so many others of my generation, I spent my girlhood living in the shadow of Dr. King’s dream of integration. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed the year before my birth, so I only knew his legacy.
Few, if any, Americans had any idea what would happen when the segregationist barriers that had defined this nation for centuries began to crumble. Children, like me, riding buses to new schools and playing soccer together, were the first to find out.
The 1970s and 1980s were daunting years for American “race relations” precisely because black and white Americans began living next door to one another and had to confront the shared and separate histories that no one discussed in polite company.
The history of integration, was, and remains, the history of children.
In Palos Verdes Estates, California-- the polite and well-heeled suburb where I spent my youth--Civil Rights was not part of the curriculum. We didn’t discuss Dr. King, or any other Civil Rights leader in school.
On August 27, 1983, after my mother, sister, and I returned from a European vacation, we stopped in Washington, D.C. and joined nearly 500,000 people to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the March on Washington and press Congress to create a federal holiday honoring Dr. King.
That day, I was a fourteen year-old girl who had spent her childhood living off the beaten path of blackness. I had never attended a protest rally. I had never been surrounded by so many other African Americans. I had never seen white people in the minority, and yet so comfortable in their solidarity.
I had heard Stevie Wonder’s song, “Happy Birthday” countless times before on the radio. But standing in that crowd, I felt that song in an entirely new way. I watched people raise their fists in time with the beat as they sang that song. On that scorching Washington afternoon, that song was a chant for justice, a celebration, as much as a demand.
As summer yielded to fall, I listened to the political debate over the proposed holiday with new ears. The polite tones in which people denounced the legislation couldn’t cover the raw emotion and anger surging beneath the surface. I recognized that stiff-lipped fury from my own hometown. I realized that the opposition was a matter of more than candles and birthday cakes.
When Senator Kennedy’s King holiday bill passed in October, I was overjoyed. I watched President Reagan signing ceremony on the news. I thought back to my day in Washington DC, to Stevie Wonder’s song and the small part I played in history.
Birthdays, like school dances and soccer games, can change the world. Happy birthday, Dr. King.
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