I grew up in Chicago during the civil rights movement. I lived in a lower income neighborhood. If anybody said I was privileged, I would have told him to “stuff it in his hat.” The old man told you to work for your allowance. Then he told you to work at the shop. Then he told you to get a job. After that, he told you to either go to school or pay rent. There was no privilege in any of it.
Where I grew up, I only saw two people of color — both worked at the lumber yard behind our house just this side of the railroad tracks. It was Chicago. City of the big shoulders, player with railroads, hard working and very segregated Chicago.
As a kid, we took a vacation to Tennessee. Outside a Tastee Freeze there were two drinking fountains. The one that was a water cooler said “White Only.” The spigot sticking out of the wall next to it said “Negro.” It must have made an impression because I can still see it.
At sixteen I got a real job. By then the only headlines were civil rights and about a place called Vietnam. I can see the police on the news holding back the dogs that were trying to attack the marchers. Things were getting ugly.
My first sports hero was Ernie Banks. He came out of the Negro Leagues. I didn’t know what the Negro Leagues were and I was too young to get the Jackie Robinson thing. I thought of Ernie Banks as being a super baseball player, a Cub. In fact he became Mr. Cub. He was ever optimistic. He was my hero. If you don’t think it took a hero to be optimistic and play for the Chicago Cubs, you know very little about heroism or optimism.
Things were getting ugly. President Kennedy became a saint. Lyndon Johnson became president. Martin Luther King, Jr., marching forward for civil rights, became the conscience of our nation.
Shortly after the assassination of Dr. King I was a high school teacher on the south side of Chicago and a year after that on the west side of Chicago. In those places at that time things were about as ugly as they could get. There were riots, bombings, open gang warfare in the streets and murders. Amid the chaos lived my students, all minority who, through the hell of it all, kept their faith and their love for Dr. King alive.
I never recall Dr. King saying black lives matter. He preached all lives matter. I don’t recall Dr. King encouraging college anarchists to break the law, break windows, burn buildings and deny the right of free speech to anyone who opposes them. I do not recall Dr. King wanting to rewrite or replace our Constitution. I do recall him urging all Americans to live up to the ideals expressed in our Constitution.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bible-preaching minister, leader with unbounded courage, who preached the truth to the powerful and powerless alike did say:
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low ... and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together ... This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood ... And this will be the day, this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.
“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
“Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we are free at last.”