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Monday, January 19, 2015
Martin Luther King, the Lincoln Memorial and Me
I first visited the Lincoln Memorial in 1961, after taking off from university with some of my buddies to enjoy the Florida sun. I wish I could tell you that we left university to join the civil rights movement, but our reason for leaving was that it was a rainy miserable fall day in Waterloo. Somebody said, as we sat drinking beer in the local pub, `Let`s go to Florida,`and without much more thought we piled into my mother`s car (a Corvair), and off we went. At the time I was attending Waterloo Lutheran University, now Wilfrid Laurier University.
I was so impressed with the Lincoln Memorial and all the sites of Washington, and as I reflect on it today, we wandered about freely everywhere we went in the United States capital city. My trip took place of course before the assassinations of President John F Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy and Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and 9/11.
As we travelled into the deep south of the United States, for the first time I saw the reality of the segregated society of the times. I vividly recall the signs on everything from restaurant doors, to water fountains, to restrooms clearly stating No Coloureds Allowed or For Whites Only and words to that effect. And `coloureds`of course were to sit at the back of the bus.
Along one highway we stopped and picked up a hitchhiker who was African American and made room for him in the front seat. I was so shocked when he told us he could not sit there, only in the back. We insisted he sit in the front and we transported this very, very nervous young man to his destination. It never really struck me the danger we placed this person and ourselves in by this seemingly simple act until I saw that great movie 'Mississippi Burning' starring Gene Hackman, and to this day I say, `But for the grace of God...`
Coming from Chapleau, a small village in northern Ontario, even though I had spent many summers in the United States visiting family friends with my Mom, I was shocked that all people could not drink from the same water fountain, use the same washrooms and eat in the same restaurants.
What started out as simply a booze trip with my buddies has had the most profound effect on me ever since, and on January 18, 2009, I had a rush of memories as I watched Barack Obama, the president-elect of the United States, the first African American to be elected to that office, some 47 years plus after I first visited the Lincoln Memorial, speak to the American people. For such a time as this, in my lifetime, I never expected.
However, on January 18, the United States celebrates Dr Martin Luther King Jr Day.
At the end of his famous 'I Have A Dream' speech delivered from the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963, Dr King said in part, `And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and hamlet, from every state and city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God`s children --- will be able to join hands and to sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual. ``Free at last, free at last; thank God Almighty, we are free at last.``
Yes, freedom has rung among all Americans of good will to bring their nation perhaps closer to that perfect union to which they aspire. To have been a minor witness has been a great privilege. I fully realize that American society, like Canadian, has a long road yet to travel.
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