Breaking Down Barriers

Photo by Travis Saylor on

I got a late start with my writing on the morning of January 17, because it was quite cold and I did not want to leave the warmth of my covers to arise, so I slept in just a bit. It was very quiet in my neighborhood due to being the Martin Luther King holiday. There were no children laughing on the corner, no buses shuttling them to school. The cars of the working folk on my street were still parked on the driveways and streets well after ten. I suspect that everyone was enjoying a slower beginning to the day thanks to Dr. King. 

I had decided not to write about my hero worship of Dr. King one more time. I seem to address that theme every single year and it felt as though I had said as much as I needed to express on that topic. Somehow when I finally did awaken and begin my morning routines, I felt compelled to compose a blog centered on Dr. King and the work that still must be done to fulfill his dream. As I read that his family wants us to take action to insure the rights of all Americans rather than just attend parades or run in marathons or post quotes from the great man, I realized that the journey to the Promised Land continues. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert we still have miles to go before the job of ensuring justice and equality for all is done. 

I was a fortunate soul back in the days of Jim Crow. Because I had white skin everything was open to me, including opportunity. While my family suffered economically after my father died, I was able to attend private school through scholarships and ultimately because the religious community there gave my mother a job and free tuition for me and my brothers. With a uniform like those everyone else wore I blended in with no effort. Nobody knew how we lived on the edge of an economic razor and few realized that I came from a single parent home. With hard work I rose to the heights in the ranks of my peers and easily gained admission to virtually any university of my choice. Only finances and troubles at home kept me from launching myself into the high society of the Ivy league, but I nonetheless received an excellent education that led to a wonderful career. 

I was a fighter for the civil rights of the Black citizens that I did not really know because I had been segregated from them for all of my life. I knew where they lived and I had an occasional interaction when I visited the home of my aunt and her maid was busy cleaning her home. Other than that, I only saw that our treatment of Black citizens was wrong even as I understood so little of what was really happening to them. It was only when I entered college and actually had classes with Black students that the veil of ignorance began to fall from my face. 

It was long after the Civil Rights Act of the nineteen sixties had passed that I began to understand even better what life had been like for my Black colleagues at work. It was then that I realized that my belief that we had done all that needed to be done was false. In my teaching career I met brilliant men and women who had spent their childhoods at the back of buses and in homes and schools tucked away from the white population. I learned of their struggles and determination to become an integrated part of American society. They were real and wonderful and I so admired them just as I had Dr. King. 

I taught students of color who had economic struggles that made those of my own family seem trivial. They had no print matter in their homes, no Internet, no computers, no transportation to libraries. Sometimes they had to care for younger siblings while their parents went to second jobs in the evenings. They told me stories of mothers coming home in the early hours of the morning while it was still dark to catch a few hours of sleep before dashing off to their main jobs. Even then their income was so low that it barely covered the basic necessities. 

These parents were unable to to attend open house or teacher conferences. Missing a few hours of work might result in loss of a much needed job. They never came to band or choir performances. Their children accepted academic awards without a cheering section. They were good mothers and fathers trying hard to keep their children fed and under a secure roof. The luxury of holidays and evenings at home were not always available to them. 

I began to see how the sins of slavery and segregation had a compounded effect on generations. I saw that it was going to take time for them to catch up to the rest of us, and that this would only happen if everyone supported them in their efforts to be welcomed into an integrated society. We have certainly come a long way, but we are not there yet. If we are honest we see the racism that still exists both overtly and under cover. We know that our Black friends and neighbors still suffer from many prejudices and ugly beliefs. 

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act addresses some of the problems, but not all. I know that the simple act of voting is exceedingly difficult for many people who work multiple jobs. They do not have the time to stand in long lines or even to get to those lines without endangering their jobs. They do not get holidays on which they might vote. They cannot chase down voter registration offices that are only open from nine to four. They do not deserve to be gerrymandered into districts that dilute their voting power and representation. 

Dr. King’s family is correct. If we sincerely want to honor the great of Martin Luther King we will continue the work that he and others began even before the slaves were freed. Dr. King wanted all men and women to live in a fair and just society. We are still working our way toward that goal.

In wonderfully diverse nation it’s time that we considered the circumstances of everyone, not just those like ourselves. We have to take off our blinders and be willing to finally see that many of our voting laws work against hard-working and honest people. Our goal should not be to make voting more difficult, but to provide the vote to as many of our qualified citizens as possible. It’s our duty to break down the barriers that keep them away. Both Democrats and Republicans need to work together to get this done.


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