“Make a career of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a better person of yourself, a greater nation of your country, and a finer world to live in.”
I’m sure I read these words once said by Dr. Martin Luther King in history class along with many other famous quotes that were lost on me at the time. But it wasn’t until many years later that they resonated. I thought I knew everything back then, but have learned there are so many things you just can’t begin to understand without life experience. I started public grade school in 1977. (Edit to remove an exclamation of mild profanity upon actually seeing that date in writing.) My shock at seeing the dates in writing is due to how long ago it’s been since I started school, but also the fact that I started school only 10 years after Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. It seemed like ancient history at the time, but when I pause to think of some things that happened 10 years ago I realize 10 years is a blink of the eye. I realize how many people I personally knew who had experienced (legal) segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. I also realize that back then, I thought all that bad stuff was in the past. Dr. King had a dream. Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus. Equal rights happened. The end. I didn’t realize until later that I also grew up in a time where inter-racial marriage was taboo to at least half of the population. Or that I grew up hearing black people called names other than African American and didn’t grasp how disrespectful and terrible that was because it was so commonplace. But even into my teenage years I allowed myself to believe that discrimination was all a thing of the past. Census information I accessed online shows that Westmoreland County, VA, where I grew up, had 8624 white residents, 5242 black residents, and 57 ‘other’ residents back in 1980. Ten years later, I moved to Myrtle Beach and my first job was at a private Jewish school. I had never met a Jewish person until then. After that I worked in the service industry in Myrtle Beach, where there was much more diversity than 1980’s Montross, VA. I met co-workers and customers of all races, ethnicities, social statuses, and walks of life. I witnessed firsthand people who had respected positions of authority do and say abominable things and also witnessed the kindest most selfless acts performed by people stereotyped and stigmatized because of their appearance, profession, or social differences. Beliefs are ingrained at a young age and though I was taught to be kind and respectful to others, I definitely had a lot of unconscious bias. My face gets red when I think of some of the unintentional yet cringeworthy things I said in the past with the best intentions. Like thinking I could solidify my status of anti-racist by stating the fact that I had friends with different skin colors. Another thing that I regret is not speaking up back in the day when someone said or did something hurtful in front of me. It’s not an excuse to say that it was ‘a different time’. Even if I didn’t participate or like hearing someone tell a stereotypical joke or use an offensive term, I regret not having the confidence and courage to speak up and call that sort of behavior out. Present day Mary has no problem doing so.
With Martin Luther King Jr. Day approaching, it seems like the perfect time to be thankful for the progress that’s been made. It’s not the day for me to promote business based on his sacrifice. It is a good time to proclaim my commitment to personally promote equal rights and opportunity not just in my career but in every aspect of my life. It’s a great day to express gratitude to Dr. King for his courage, wisdom, and activism. Every year I rewatch videos about housing discrimination and though they are not fun to watch they renew my gratitude for those who have fought so hard for equal opportuny to include the Fair Housing Act .
There’s another quote I love. It’s been debated if Dr. King actually said it verbatim or if it was based on something he said, but it speaks to me either way:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”