Reflections of a White Man on MLK Day


Having recently watched the movie Lee Daniels' The Butler, Martin Luther King, Jr. was already on the front burner of my mind. Not long before that, I had seen Twelve Years a Slave, based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in antebellum America. My history students probably tire of hearing me say that to truly appreciate history, you must take the step of putting yourself in the place of the people in question. This same mental tool, one that sets man apart from the rest of creation, is a divine gift. It is imagination. I must at least attempt to imagine what life might have been like for the Jews under Roman rule, for example, or for  Copernicus and Galileo as they were postulating that the earth was round and that, along with the other planets, it revolved around the sun, while the vast majority of the world's population simply assumed that conventional wisdom was correct. Or for the first Europeans who set out to make a home in the New World, leaving religious and political persecution behind them in exchange for extreme living conditions and starvation for some. Or for the natives whose land these strange white men were invading and claiming as their own.

Or for the millions of black Americans who were born into a minority that was treated as second class, at best, for centuries.

The fact of the matter is obvious: we white Americans simply do not know, nor ever have, what it is like to be a minority.

Unless and until we exercise our imagination to peer into the world of the African American, or any other minority, we will be myopic and ethnocentric.

Someone recently posted a comment, or rather a question, on a Facebook post of mine about Nelson Mandela. He asked how South Africa is different because of Mandela's life. I sincerely hope his implication was not that this 95-year life had little to no impact on South African life. Though South Africa is far from reaching the ideals set forth for it by "Madiba," the elder statesman who left us not long ago, the consciousness of that nation is forever changed.

So it is with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Even though we as a nation have a long way to go before we actually live as if all men are created equal, we are different because of the peaceful war on prejudice and inequality waged by King and his courageous followers.

Imagine how much better it can still be.