Martin Luther King, Jr and me


or How I discovered the racist within

Diploma in hand, job plans up in the air, I stuck out my thumb to begin my journey from Messiah College to Atlanta, Georgia, for a summer in Mennonite Voluntary Service.  I was also beginning a more important journey:  away from racism.  Rides quickly took me to Frederick, MD, Washington, DC, and then near dusk to Culpeper, VA.  Rides disappeared with the daylight. So, I headed for the Greyhound depot and asked the ticket seller how much I would need to pay for a bus trip to dawn.  The agent said that Knoxville looked promising and near daylight the bus dropped me at the edge of the city for my next free ride to Chattanooga, TN.  From there a big car made quick work of the distance to Atlanta.  My ride deposited me at a phone booth in front of a restaurant.  There I could make a call to check on the cheapest way to Mennonite House, my home for the summer.

The cab driver to whom I gave the Mennonite House address said, “You don’t want to go there!”  Apparently, the police, concluding that they knew the one reason blacks and whites would spend the night in the same residence, had raided the house the previous night.  The restaurant where the cab picked me up made news several weeks later.  Lester Maddox, the owner (and later governor of Georgia), passed out axe handles to white patrons to help him keep non-whites from entering the restaurant.

I fought against racism at an ordinary summer camp with activities of games, crafts, songs and stories.  The difference was that we were the only white males that most of the children had seen who were not police or insurance agents.  We rode a public bus from Mennonite House across town to the camp in a Black ghetto .  One day on the bus, I realized that some of the people were young, some old, some bald, some with lots of hair, some lighter, some darker.  Individuals, not just members of another race.  I was surprised to realize that I was still a racist.  Not completely, of course.  After all, I had come to Atlanta to help deal with the problem of racism and its effects.

The journey begun on that bus continued and continues today, I hope.  During the summer, my heart was reshaped by seeing the “hate stare” at a suburban outdoor theater I attended in a mixed–race group.  Later I sensed the anxiety of a black friend who felt he had to duck down in the back seat as we traveled through rural Georgia to go birding.  Fears about some members of the VS group at Mennonite House traveling to Mississippi were fanned by the news that three civil rights workers were missing.  This was 1964, the summer of “Mississippi Burning” and other hot stuff.

When the VS term was over, the Southern Christian Leadership Council office asked if any of us could work for a week or two. They offered to pay my bus fare back to Pennsylvania, so, I nobly agreed.   I worked in the mail room in a basement room three levels below the offices of the important people above. During breaks from sorting mail and packaging books written by Martin Luther King, Jr., I took time to read some of his books.

Sometimes as I worked an interest–looking man walked by the mail room and up the stairs.  Only some weeks later did I realized that the man I saw was actually Martin Luther King, Jr.  I knew he had an office upstairs.  His hideaway office was near the mail room!  Perhaps I was still seeing people of color, rather than individuals. Perhaps I didn’t expect him to be working next to the mail room.

Even after 50 years, that bus-trip milestone in my journey away from racism surprises me.  My racist mind may have been re–formed by my Christian college experience.  But my diploma, my courses in psychology, sociology, history and social justice had not yet renewed my racist heart.  I remember that experience when I hear of “ethnic cleansing” and race-related violence.  I am reminded how deep-seated prejudice can be.  The journey has continued.  But, I still need to recognize the racist within, in spite of my commitment against racism, and to continue let the love of Jesus renew my heart and mind.

Revised from an essay published October 2001 in the Weaver, a publication of  Weavers Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Va.