MLK would be pleased, but not satisfied, with 2013 America


Photo: Sam Barton

This painting hangs in the main office of Fairmont High School, representing Fairmont’s appreciation for Dr. Martin Luther King and his life’s work.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.”

Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed this sentiment in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. These words demonstrate his integrity, how he never settled for anything less than what was right. These words represent the hope he brought to those who felt hope didn’t even exist anymore. These words display character, honesty, confidence and patience. These words, without a doubt, belong to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

King is known all over the nation for being the face of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, a period in which African-Americans were looked down upon and treated badly simply because of the color of their skin. While America shamefully admits to participating in decades and decades of this kind of discrimination, racism and inequality, it was King who acknowledged these wrongdoings and staged peaceful protests to counteract them.

Fairmont U.S. History teacher Jennifer Richardson feels that making these protests nonviolent was the best option for drawing attention to the cause. “When you use nonviolent protests, you get your message heard,” Richardson said. “It takes a lot longer and I think it’s a much slower process, but I think it is more effective in the long run, and I think that’s really what King focused on. I think that was definitely the right way to go for him and all of the African-American leaders that were behind him.”

Peaceful protesting during the Civil Rights Movement took many forms, including boycotts of city buses, sit-ins at diners, and the famous March on Washington that occurred on Aug. 28, 1963. Many of these events happened all over the nation and did not go unnoticed. In fact, many times, law enforcement would try to stop them from continuing.

Central Unit Guidance Counselor Tim Whetsel shared what it was like to observe some of these protests as they happened — not just as a bystander, but as a young African-American.

“I grew up in a rural community and things weren’t as bad as they were in other places,” Whetsel said. “That’s why I didn’t realize the fight. When I would watch TV and see people with fire hoses, I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t get discriminated against like they did. I couldn’t figure out what they were fighting for. Nowadays, that would be all over the media all day long. You would’ve seen people, with their peaceful march, getting hosed down. And the dogs, that’s one thing I don’t forget. There were dogs and fire hoses being used on the people who were marching peacefully.”

So, what were they fighting for that made others feel the need to try and stop them, even harm them? They would not risk their lives for a cause that was undeserving. That means the treatment they dealt with daily had to be incredibly deserving in and of itself.

For example, in the 1960s, blacks were not allowed to use the same restrooms as whites. They weren’t allowed to eat in the same diners as white people, go to the same schools as white children, ride at the front of the bus if there were whites on board, or even get their hair cut by white barbers.

Whetsel explained that when he was young, even in northern Ohio, he experienced some of these things firsthand.

“There are certain things that stay with you that you will never forget,” Whetsel said. “I remember that my best friend’s mom was a beautician, and she wouldn’t cut my mother’s hair. This was before the Civil Rights Movement. I had to go to a black barber to get my hair cut. I remember my father going to the VFW with a bunch of his old army buddies and being refused service there, being asked to leave. I remember being called names, that was another thing. There weren’t a lot of people that did it, because I was fortunate to live where I did. But it was there. There were also certain restaurants and clubs that we weren’t allowed to go to when I was younger. It was not as overtly done as it was down South, but there are times where we’d go places and we wouldn’t be served.”

Without a doubt, this was something worth standing up for. Many students at Fairmont, even teachers at Fairmont, cannot possibly understand how these men and women must have felt. They were denied numerous privileges and considered inferior to others. They could not even go out to dinner with their families without worrying about whether or not the restaurant down the road would let them eat there.

The question is: Is this over? While things in America have come a long way, racism and discrimination still exist.

African-American sophomore Lyndsy Wilson shared that she encountered some incidents of racism when she was in elementary school, not even 10 years ago.

I feel like it has definitely improved since the Civil Rights Movement, but people try to joke about it now instead. And I’m not really sure how I feel about that.”

— Sophomore Lyndsy Wilson

“When I was in third or fourth grade, we had this thing called the Cultural Gathering,” Wilson said. “We had to bring in a type of food from our culture and share about it. Well, a few days before, I told one of my teachers I wasn’t sure what to bring in. During that time I didn’t know much about my own culture. She asked me why I wouldn’t just bring something from Africa, and I felt shocked at the way she said it so disrespectfully. I told my mom, and my mom told my teacher that most of our family is from the Blackfoot Indian tribe. I ended up getting a pretty good grade on my food. We brought in a Native American dish instead of an African dish.”

She also shared that she doesn’t experience racism often anymore, but she still hears about it, sometimes even in the hallways at Fairmont. “Usually, when I do hear discrimination, it’s in a form of a joke,” Wilson said. “I feel like it has definitely improved since the Civil Rights Movement, but people try to joke about it now instead. And I’m not really sure how I feel about that.”

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, it’s safe to say he’d be happy that some things have improved so much. But he would not be content. Richardson feels like he would never be truly satisfied, because he was a man who always wanted more.

“I think Dr. King was kind of a revolutionary in that he’s the type of person that would never be content with just leaving things as they are,” Richardson said. “He’d always want improvement. He’d always want to build upon the ideas of equality. Do I think we’ve come far? Yes, from the 1950’s, when you’re talking about segregation and Jim Crow Laws, but there are still places to go. Had he never existed, I think there would’ve been other people that filled those shoes, because he was not the only man working toward those things.”

Whetsel also feels that if Dr. King were still alive, he would’ve pushed for even more societal improvements, and if he had never existed, someone would have stepped in and taken over the role. “I think there are too many people who did not agree. There are too many people who thought what was going on was wrong. There were a lot of people who felt that way during slavery days, too. Don’t forget that people had to die for this.”

America: the land of the free and the home of the brave. Well, maybe now it is. Or it’s headed that direction.

In the Declaration of Independence, it states that “all men are created equal.” That doesn’t quite align with the prejudice that was harbored for blacks during the ’60s. It also doesn’t quite align with the way Native Americans were treated when America was first discovered. It doesn’t align with the way women were treated during the women’s suffrage, the way Japanese-Americans were treated during World War II, the way Irish immigrants, Hispanic immigrants, Italian immigrants and almost all those who are different have felt upon coming to the United States.

Richardson shared that African-American women, in particular, took a backseat, especially before the Civil Rights Movement and the push for women’s suffrage. “I think anybody who looks at the Declaration knows that the guys who wrote that didn’t necessarily include women in that, or minorities,” Richardson said. “I think King was one of the people who looked at the founding of our country and said, ‘It’s time to follow through.’ What’s interesting is that many African-American women did a lot of work in favor of the Civil Rights Movement, but they got pushed to the back because they were black and they were women. They had their race and their gender both working against them.”

So what does equality truly mean, then? There are so many different connotations associated with that word, all of which can apply to what King stood for, not only for blacks, but for all people everywhere.

Whetsel shared his definition of equality and brought up the fact that it also involved the concept of self-worth. “Equality is everybody having the same opportunities to grow and learn and to become productive citizens of society,” Whetsel said. “It’s being able to feel good about yourself like other people can. I know it had to be difficult, back in those days, for your self-esteem and self-worth, when you’re treated as less than other people.”

Martin Luther King Jr. is, was and always will be the “poster child” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Hopefully, he would look at America today and be pleased with some of the changes that have been made. Hopefully, when he said, “I have a dream,” he would look at American society and see that dream coming true.

Whether he would approve or not, the legacy he left will never be forgotten, and his push for equal rights lives on. “Believing in equality really opens up doors to new relationships and gives you a good understanding of the fact that we all come from different places and we all see the world differently,” said Wilson. “Cultural diversity is spreading as the generations go by, and we’re seeing new things and new opportunities.”