April 4 on any year’s calendar has two meanings to me. Both are important and both are related. To the rest of America April 4th is the day in which Doctor Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated on a motel terrace in Memphis, Tennessee, 45 years ago today. While his greatness is undeniable; his martyrdom sealed with absolute certainty that he would never be forgotten.
April 4th is also my wedding Anniversary. The best day of my life was when Miss Sonja Fleming agreed to love me and keep me and honor me and wear my ring for the rest of my life. Twenty-six years later we have enjoyed lots of love and traditions, made our own traditions, raised three kids and stayed together. The staying together part is wonderful and a blessing. But I think my wife would agree it wasn’t a fairy tale. As with all successful marriages we’ve overcome some challenges; though we had more than many.
These two anniversaries are related in that Sonja is black, and I am white. At the time of Martin Luther King’s death such a union was extremely rare, and socially unacceptable in the eyes of most Americans. In 1958 only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. By 1968 that figure had only grown to 20%. At that time it was only one year removed from the U.S. Supreme Court making it legal for people of different races to wed. Remarkably there are still 16% of Americans who don’t approve of my marriage. Something I share with my children all the time is the fact that in 1987, when Sonja and I said our “I do’s”, interracial marriage was still rare and still disapproved of by most Americans. I tell my kids this, and they nod, but I can tell they haven’t a clue. How could they? But even those who are my age or older have forgotten what pioneers we were and what obstacles existed as late as 1987.
I maintain Martin Luther King’s death made our marriage and it’s longevity possible. His death was so horrible and so universally scorned that even the hateful racists or the indifferent idiots were forced to shut-up over changes that happened far too slowly.
Much to my embarrassment and frustration my father was one of the majority who didn’t approve of the marriage of a white man (especially his son) to a black woman. Eight years later my brother married a woman of Philippine decent. And my Dad showed no signs of disapproving. At the time I asked why it was wrong for me to marry a black woman but OK in his mind for my brother to marry a woman with darker skin, and asian. To his credit my father said , “You were Jackie Robinson. You showed that it’s OK”. I loved him for saying what was possibly the very best thing he could have said.
Funny how that happens. Things change in society. Some are decidedly bad. But some things we only think are bad at the time change is occurring. Time and example prove the changes were OK at worst, good at best. In other words, the masses are often wrong.
I was only four years old at the time of Martin Luther Kings death. But by the time I was 19 Ronald Reagan had signed a bill into law creating a national holiday in his name. Funny, that was opposed too.
Race in this country is sadly still a huge issue. And being on the front lines of the issue for more than 26 years I can tell you how sad I find it. For there can be no denying that the ugly face of racism still exists. But I don’t believe it hampers the advancement of most African-Americans from achieving their dreams and goals for success. I do believe the belief, in and of itself, by many blacks that racism holds them back is in fact what holds them back.
The fact that I’m married to a black woman for 26 years and the father of three kids who society calls black does not insulate me from criticism from some in the black community for holding this belief. One need only look at the fierce attacks
Race in this country can live up to Martin Luther King’s dream when and only when African-Americans collectively recognize that racism will never be fully eradicated. Idiots and hate have existed throughout history. But to point accusatory fingers at every person and incident and scream “racism” at every slight only frustrates everyone and keeps innocent people on the defensive and pushes them away. For instance, today’s higher rate of poverty among blacks is less the result of societal racism and more the result of the astounding rate of single-mother and teen births.
As of 2010 72.5% percent of black children are born to single mothers. It’s 29% for whites, 53.3% for Hispanics. Not one single white person, racist or not is responsible for this horrible fact. And it’s horrible because 64% of single mothers and their children live in poverty, regardless of race.
Progress has been made in race relations since the death of Martin Luther King and since the 1987 marriage of Sonja and I. A black President with a traditionally Muslim name is fair evidence of this fact. But on this day every year, I want more and better. And from this non-racist white guys perspective the African-American collective bares the burden of making this happen. Not entirely, just most of the heavy lifting.
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