Monday, April 4, 2011

On the Anniversary of Dr. King's Death

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the LORD showed him the whole land. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the LORD, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. Deuteronomy 34:1, 4-5

The summer before my freshman year in college I received a letter from Wesleyan University asking whether I would mind having a Negro roommate. At the time, I was insulted by the question. What would make them think I was a racist? I rewrote the response card to indicate that I would not mind having a Black roommate, but I did object to the question.

Looking back, the experience seems surreal. Did I really grow up in a time when we thought that white people needed to be asked whether they could share a room with a person of another race? I doubt that they sent a letter to my roommate, Stewart Malloy, to ask whether he would mind having a white roommate. But to be fair, Wesleyan was embarking on a new and precedent setting path. They were the first of the elite, private, traditional liberal arts colleges to actively recruit and admit a large minority population to the student body, and they were understandably nervous. Looking back, I am proud of Wesleyan’s leadership in that historic endeavor.

When I told my grandmother Trench about the question and about my response, she said, “You know that means you’ll have a colored roommate, don’t you?” Later that fall, when Stewart came home for Thanksgiving with me, we were dis-invited from the family meal. It was the beginning of a rift that would last for years.

As the year unfolded, Stewart and I found ourselves living through a time of great racial tension and upheaval. The Wesleyan vision of integration was continually under attack from the larger white community, which wanted “more time” to do this more “gradually,” (that was before we had even reached “all deliberate speed”) and from the pressures of the growing Black pride and Black separatism movements on campus.

Our room was, at least in our minds, like the eye of the hurricane. Stewart and I talked often about racial issues, but we never had a single argument on the subject. We listened to each other, and we learned. And like many other young people, we were busy thinking about how we could change the world.

Then one night, as I sat at my desk, Stewart came back to the room in tears. “They killed him,” he said. And immediately, I knew who the “him” was. Martin Luther King, Jr., the prophet of non-violent change, had been murdered. On campus and around the country, racial tensions increased dramatically.

A few weeks later, after a meeting with the Black student group, Stewart told me that we could no longer be friends. Nothing would change in our room, but outside we would not speak to each other. It was not personal. It had nothing to do with us. It was all about larger issues in the Black student community.

Freshman year ended and we went our separate ways. I don’t believe we spoke again until our twentieth reunion. Stewart was sitting on a stone wall in front of the College of Letters. We hugged and laughed and talked for a long time. It was as if our conversation had only been briefly interrupted.

On the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, I find myself remembering and reflecting. Last night there was a program on CNN chronicling the events surrounding his death. A significant part of the report detailed the efforts of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI to discredit King and to treat him as a criminal. Today, when current government leaders speak warmly of his contributions, it is easy to forget how controversial and revolutionary his message was.

Although I often lament our political polarization today, it is important to remember that we have made progress.

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