It’s the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It’s time to think about Kendra.
She’s the black child I tutored when she was a student at Forest Park Elementary School where my wife Toni served as principal.
One cold morning in February, Kendra and I sat across each other at our usual place in the first-floor hallway. A little table separated us. On the wall hung a large calendar depicting black heroes. The school district was observing Black History Month.
I ask this shy little girl with her carefully arranged braids if she knew that when her parents were children in our city they attended all-black schools and white kids attended white schools.
She gave me a puzzled look. She seemed to be telling me that segregating children that way didn’t make any sense. In fact, she hadn’t heard of such a thing.
I was reminded of something desegregation expert Gary Orfield once told me:
“It’s the adults who have the problem. The kids wonder what all the fuss is about.” That was the case with this fully integrated elementary school, desegregated like all our schools since a court decision in 1989.
Sunday evening I joined hundreds of black and white folk at Plymouth Congregational Church in downtown Fort Wayne. It was the 28th annual service in honor of the life and ministry of Dr. King. I believe I have only missed two of these inspiring services. Great music, powerful preaching. This event was no exception.
The speaker this night was Dr. Timothy Lake. He’s a Fort Wayne native and philosophy professor at Wabash College. He’s written books about Dr. King. His theme was King’s dream for today. Coincidentally, Dr. Lake spoke on the eve of Barak Obama’s inauguration for his second term as the country’s first black president.
All through the evening’s service, I found myself trying to imagine what Dr. King would have thought about all that’s happened to advance civil rights. So many barriers to equality have come down. So many doors to blacks and other minorities have opened. And to crown it all, a black president. King liked to say that the arc of history bends toward justice.
In so many ways, that seems to be true. Yet for many it’s an empty promise. I’m reminded of Lorraine Hansberry’s phrase about a dream deferred, drying up like “a raisin in the sun,” title of her prize-winning play. I think of the countless poor, minority children who start school with major learning deficits because we don’t yet provide universal pre-school.
I think about the thousands of young minorities caught up in our archaic criminal justice system. So often these are men and women too imprisoned for years over minor drug offenses. I think about the high unemployment are among minorities – double or triple that for whites, depending on the region and the city. This what a dream deferred looks like.
At the King memorial Sunday evening, Dr. Lake spoke of the need for all of us who fight for justice to fortify ourselves with courage and faith. Beyond that, the challenge is to get personally involved. We can join groups that advocate for equal rights. We can give time and resources to the cause. We must not allow the dream to dry up.
I haven’t followed Kendra’s life since my wife retired. The girl would be in high school or out by now. Either way, I know my dream for her. It’s to continue studying and learning. It’s to join the mainstream, not as the victim of racial prejudice. Rather, it’s for her to join as a full-fledged citizen who is judged not by the color of her skin but in Dr. King’s words, “the content of her character.”
I’m pulling for her. And on this doubly special day, a day to celebrate an old dream, a day for another term for a black president, I’m pulling for America.