I am delighted that our country officially recognizes the many accomplishments of Martin Luther King by celebrating this special day. We honor not only Dr. King but also the many other heroic leaders of the civil rights movement. In the face of terrible prejudice and discrimination, they bravely pointed out the injustice, even when to do so placed their lives in jeopardy.
When I was in jail, the life of Dr. King provided me with guidance in a very uncertain situation. There was a racist guard who was taunting an African American friend of mine. The goal of the guard was clearly to write up my friend and have him placed in “seg” or the segregation area of the jail. How ironic!
I walked back and forth in our common area, and every time I passed my friend’s cell I would encourage him. “You can do this; you can’t let him win,” I said one time. Another time I stated, “He’s just trying to get to you.” While I made these brief comments, I did not think about the fact that the officer was no doubt listening to my friend’s intercom. He wisely said nothing in response to my comments. He knew exactly what was happening.
When I attempted to go back to my cell, I found it had been locked remotely from the guard observation area. I was now the guard’s target! Then an odd thought came to my mind. “What would Martin Luther King do?” And immediately I realized how this champion of passive resistance would react—he would lie down in front of the locked door! I proceeded to do so, using my hands as a pillow, and was almost asleep when I heard the door to my cell opening by remote control. I took care not to smile as I walked into the cell for a nap.
I remember quite vividly the day Dr. King died of an assassin’s bullet. I could not fathom how someone could use such violence against this champion of non-violence. He fought for equality for those disadvantaged in a country that was deeply divided over what really constitutes justice. But the news reports at the time brought to our living rooms ghastly images of violence and destruction, always highlighting the color of skin of those who did these things. Yet Dr. King held high the goal of a better world free of such violence.
How had those news reports affected me? At a deep level they instilled fear. I was a white person attending a high school that did not have a single black person. There was no possibility of dispelling the fear I had learned by having a real relationship with a person of African descent. But somehow I knew I needed to learn the truth. Then it occurred to me: why not go to a nearby city and attend an African American church? I knew that it would almost certainly have great music, and I could find out if my fears were justified.
The next Sunday I heard extraordinary music. I saw smiling, welcoming faces. I heard preaching that was unlike any I had heard before. I would never forget that service. And at the end I planned a quick exit by a side door. But I wasn’t fast enough. Several young black men moved quickly in my direction. I began to sweat and my feet wanted to run. But then I saw the extended hands of the young men. Theirs was a warm welcome for this scared white boy!
We sat down as I peppered them with questions about the service. I expressed my delight with the organist, who played like Billy Preston. They explained the women in white gowns who were called missionaries. They answered all of my questions, and did not make me feel stupid for asking them. I knew they would become good friends.
Ten years later I spent a year on a remote Caribbean island as a teacher. It was a volcanic island and a tropical rainforest, shunned by most tourists. There were no four or five star hotels. But my students were intelligent and fun to teach. They and friends in the nearby village helped me learn the culture. I came to feel very much at home in this country where perhaps ninety percent of the people had African ancestors. When I returned to the states, I flew into the New York airport. It was crowded and I began to be fearful. I had not been around so many white people for at least a year!
What can registrants learn from the civil rights movement and the racism that is still present in this country? And of what relevance is there for registrants of my own experiences of racial and ethnic differences?
First, I want to make it clear that racism and being on the registry are very different. Race is something with which we are born. But we are not born registrants; we become a registrant for something we did, or of which we were convicted (or pled guilty). But perhaps we can learn from the valiant work of Dr. King and the many other leaders of the civil rights movement, past and present. Their work may help provide guidance for registrants to consider.
Any prejudice is the result of learning. Some of that learning is overt teaching that there are no differences between sex offenders, and that registrants are either rapists or child abusers that never change. Of course we know this is not the case, but the world around us, including many of the laws we must obey, assume we are capable of dreadful acts. This is not much different from the racism of the past and present, where violent behavior was and is assumed. A group of people are treated as categories, something less than human.
But if prejudices are learned, taught by parents, teachers and others, there is hope for change. When it comes to respecting and appreciating racial differences, this country does not have the best track record for change. So we must expect, as people on the registry or loved ones of registrants, that change for us will also be slow, halting: three steps forward followed by one or two steps backwards. Things won’t change overnight.
We can also realize there are people who are willing to examine the truth in spite of widespread prejudice. They will take a chance by getting to know us and hearing our stories. If we listen and know the facts, they will listen and consider our words. But we must earn their respect and trust, as did Martin Luther King.
From the civil rights movement we can also learn the positive influence of court decisions. Sometimes top-down decisions can make a difference when all other doors to change are sealed shut.
We can clearly see the role of the media in perpetuating stereotypes and misconceptions. But by implication, the media can also be an important influence in making changes. Conveying the truth from relevant research is something the media can do well, if key players are encouraged to do so. A primary task is to help the media see registrants as people that are reasonable and intelligent, not perverse.
Civil rights leaders also had a personal and political influence that was important. That means getting acquainted with people who live near us, as well as those who lead our communities, counties and states. We must take the first step by introducing ourselves, being helpful and friendly, and doing our best to be good neighbors before and after our registrant status is known. The gift of a cake, or casserole, mowing a lawn, or having friendly conversations, are possible first steps. But they are only first steps. From there we go to the broader community. And from there we find the next steps. You will know some steps that I do not. We can all learn from one another, as well as take lessons from the past.
Registrants are a diverse group, and we bring with us important lessons about breaking down the barriers. And perhaps “breaking down the barriers” is too strong. Perhaps we take down the barriers one brick at a time, by acts of kindness and openness to others. We need to be good listeners and observers, so we can see which bricks that divide us are loose and can most easily be removed. But we must not give up trying. It took nearly a century after the end of slavery for Americans to become sensitive to the civil rights of minority groups among us. Like Dr. King, we must be willing to learn what works and what does not. And our most important teachers are among us.
We shall overcome some day.