Fifty years ago, I was a skinny-legged kid, living in Oregon, catching toads and tearing around on my Schwinn Miss Teen bike. I was dimly aware that a black person couldn’t sit at just any seat at a lunch counter. I had no clue that the world was about to once again unleash the dogs of war. There was incredible turmoil every night on our flickering television screens. Activists stood up and marched in suit and tie or skirts and high heels, and there was one particularly inspiring speech now known as the “I Have A Dream” speech. I remember the images as blurs, but I can still feel those knots in my gut and smell my parents’ fear every time Mr. Cronkite related the latest assassinations, the latest body counts. We’ve seen several remarkable films recently that have reminded me of all that, (Sapphires, The Butler, and not so recently The Help,) and left me with a pocket full of wet kleenexes and an odd mix of hope and despair. This all came together in my mind this morning as I sat in Sharon’s Cafe in south Corvallis at the counter (best bacon in town). At the opposite counter sat a young black man, flanked by two young white men. They were laughing, joking, wolfing down their breakfast, enjoying life. I’m pretty sure no one else in the place even gave it a second thought, which in itself is quite remarkable. I concluded that Dr. King would probably have wanted them to take off their baseball caps, but he would be so pleased.
I know that we still have far to go in this world before we come closer to the vision of justice and freedom that he shared with so many other thoughtful men and women over the centuries. And I know that each passing week reveals another injustice, another tragedy, or a specter of a new threat – radioactive oceans? war again (or should that be still) in Korea or the middle East? Melting ice caps? But still, this kind of progress is good. We should celebrate it where we find it. I sat there for a long time, watching the young men, sipping my coffee, quietly celebrating.
We’re gonna be okay, as long as we don’t just sit around on our “laurels” after we celebrate. Joan Baez quotes a Quaker expression, ”Speak Truth to Power,” in the Time Magazine August 26, 2013 edition. Right on (that expression, by the way, originated back then in case you’re so young that you think I’m just trying to appropriate the vernacular of youth.) My truth may sound different than your truth, but we both must speak.
Sketch based on a photo by Dan Budnik as seen on Time Magazine’s cover, NFS.