It was July 31, 1966. I was a new high school graduate working at a local restaurant and getting ready to go to college. My hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, was abuzz. On this day, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was speaking at Reynolds Coliseum, and the Ku Klux Klan was gathering at Memorial Auditorium for a counter-protest. These two sites were in walking distance, at least for my young body.
When you work split shifts in a restaurant, you have this wide gap of time to consume. A co-worker and I decided to go downtown to see what was happening. Actually, we thought there would be trouble, and we all know that can be a magnet for teenagers. I was not prepared for the impact that this day would have on me for the rest of my life.
Around Memorial Auditorium, we heard speeches and conversations that spewed hatred and discrimination toward Black people from men whose faces were covered with hoods. I could not help but think about my Black co-workers back at the restaurant who were good and kind people. I felt bad that these words would be hurtful to them. Later, in conversations, I learned that these words were not new to them. Boy, was I naive.
My co-worker and I quickly tired of that show of vile discourse, and trekked off to Hillsborough Street near Reynolds Coliseum. Dr. King had just finished speaking to over 5,000 people about love and peace and hope. The conversations in the street were about working together for justice, brotherhood, and righting wrongs. The contrast was stark.
That was my moment. For my entire adult life, I chose social justice. I chose being vocal and active rather than that teenager on the sidelines. My next encounter with the KKK was as a marcher to integrate Forsyth County, Georgia, in 1987 when I was the recipient of those vile words of hate. Thoughts of my Black co-workers in that Raleigh restaurant gave me the strength to stand tall and proud and reject hatred.
This is our time to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an American hero who taught us the power of social justice. Let’s honor his memory through service and by ending the injustices that still occur in this country. Engage in service to end achievement gaps that undermine the future of too many children. Stand up for immigrants who experience too often the same vile and hate-filled language of bigotry. Speak out against bullies who scar children for the rest of their lives. Hold politicians accountable for their blind eye to poverty in this country. Feed the hungry, comfort the sick, and never miss a chance to march for justice.
Find your moment and share it with others.
The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.