I was touched as I read the article about a documentary by high school students that chronicles Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Connecticut, where he worked on a tobacco farm while in college. It’s hard to imagine the level of prejudice he encountered, although I have experienced prejudice in many forms throughout my life.
I have been talked to as if I am stupid because of the state I grew up in. My qualifications for my executive position in sport was questioned because of my gender. My sports scholarships in college were limited for the same reason, despite Title IX. I still hear people I know tell hateful jokes and express hatred toward people they do not know simply because those people are perceived to be different, bad or otherwise less valuable based on immutable characteristics.
I have shamefully been the reason my minority friends were finally allowed to pass the red rope at a club I didn’t want to be in.
I never experienced the segregation quite the way Dr. King did, but I have seen the residue left behind. I hope we will continue to wipe it away in the same way we paint over graffiti and curb our dogs.
According to the documentary’s filmmakers, it was the simple pleasures that inspired Dr. King to give back to a society that had not been very fair to him before he went to Connecticut. He learned that not all white people were hateful toward non-white people. Not all white people had black slaves. Not everyone is so afraid of differences that they are hateful toward those that appear different.
That is still true today, regardless of what a few experiences might tell you. Or what you might learn of through media outlets intent on creating inflammatory conflict so you will watch certain programs or buy certain publications.
Dr. King saw what I was taught in law school and still believe (even if I don’t always see it honored): isolated incidents are not necessarily predictors of repeat behavior. He understood that nothing was “black and white.” This is not just a reference to racism in America but to understanding all circumstances. The answers we seek are almost always somewhere in between what we characterize as polar opposites but that might actually be side by side in a circle that doesn’t know it’s a circle.
MLK’s pleasant surprises in Connecticut taught him that we could be different, yet live in harmony. We can share the same experiences, enjoy them differently and not dilute their value in any way. That is the America I love. His is the dream I have.
May we remember his legacy today and the dream of a United States greater than even our Founding Fathers imagined. May we live up to the visions of our children, the immigrants who come here seeking their own dreams and to the aspirations we all had before we allowed isolated incidents of challenge or even hatred to jade us. May we remember that in America, we are all free to be who we are in any form as long as we do not harm each other. Better yet, may we remember we have the power to inspire and to help each other with what appears to be one small change but may not be small at all.
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Nance L. Schick, Esq. is a New York City attorney and mediator who focuses on keeping people out of court and building their conflict resolution skills, especially in business and employment disputes. Her holistic, integrative approach to conflict resolution draws from her experience as a crime victim, human resources supervisor, minor league sports agent, litigant, and trial attorney. She is a 2001 graduate of the State University of New York Buffalo Law School trained in Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).