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Monday, January 16, 2012

A White guy in a wheelchair speaks to what Dr Martin Luther King Jr. means to him

Case and point.

About five years ago, while I was perusing a small poster sale in my college, I came across a poster with a certain photograph of one Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. giving  his now famed August, 1968 speech -- you know the one with the dream. And as I don't often hesitate to pick up things that move me so to speak, I bought this poster, for as I remember less than five dollars. It was a meager price for what I saw as a small way to commemorate someone who I thought exemplified a philosophy that to me seemed only natural in that I had grown up in a multiethnic neighborhood with Italian Polish, Jewish, African-American, Puerto Rican and Indian cultures being represented. My best friend of over 15 years (and future Best Man at my wedding) was Black, my girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife), Filipino and even my college friends seemed to exemplify a cultural diversity that just wouldn't exist without this man. So like most any student who just bought a poster, I went back to my dorm and hung it and that seemed to be the end of it.

A few weeks later, however, a family member who I considered to be a  pretty smart guy, and still do for that matter, while visiting one day jokingly but somewhat quizzically asked me, "You know you're White, right?" I quickly quipped back, "That's not the point," and proceeded to tell him what I've just told you in this blog. He seemed to get the message well enough, and so I went about my business. But his assumption was clear: because I was White, Martin Luther King Jr. was not MY civil rights leader and that in my family member's mind, Dr. King and his legacy belonged to Black people. This view, prevailing as it may be in many people's minds, saddens me very much in that this brilliant man, educated, well read, deeply faithful and convicted by conscience is, to this day still seen by some to embody the problems and remedies of  just one type of person, one ethnic race or one skin color. As a man with Cerebral palsy, civil rights and the civil rights movement of the 60s, was never just a Black thing, a White thing, a conservative thing, a liberal thing, a religious thing or a secular thing. It was simply the right thing.

How would I, for instance, as a man who uses a wheelchair, be able to justify demanding the physical ability to enter a public space where the able-bodied walk if I were to allow myself to disallow others with particular physical features to enter the same square? How would I have been able to attend school with the general population as easily as I did from a political standpoint if racial segregation had still existed in law books in the United States? And lastly, would I be able to have the relationships I do, the friendships and even the wife that I will have soon without a society which embraces cultural diversity in the name of respect?

Today, I live in a society that elected a bi-racial man, Barack Obama President of the United States in 2008, 40 years hence from Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech and just 50 to 60 years after the wounds of abject racial segregation. Yet today, in 2012, despite the lingering prejudices that may exist, you and I now live in a world where all this is possible. We live in a world where neither friendship nor romance nor business partnership nor love of neighbor need be bound by the color of skin, the dimensions of disability or the preconceptions of culture, but we as a people, a humanity -- that we are at very least able to embrace the true content of both our distinct as well as our collective characters. For that I am forever thankful. Thank you, Dr. King and thank you to all like him who believe that the world is better because it is a little more together.

Roll on and dream.

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