It’s 3:41 am, but sleep eludes me. I am haunted by America.
A few hours ago I walked from the Supreme Court building to the new Martin Luther King Jr Memorial and back. Along the way, I stopped by the Lincoln Memorial, wandering among the perennial tourists. A pudgy white boy of nine or ten, stood on the steps beside me. “Hey, Larry,” he called to his friend, “‘I have a dream.'”
Looking back across the reflecting pond to the Washington Memorial, I remembered that day, almost fifty years ago now, when Mahalia Jackson and Peter, Paul and Mary sang and Martin delivered his iconic speech. The great divide in American politics and religion is between those who remember that day in 1963 with a aching veneration, and those who regard Martin’s Dream Speech with an odd mixture of respect, dread and discomfort.
I grew up with King’s speeches. In my native Canada, the great civil rights leader was regarded as latter day prophet, a civil rights hero. My generation of Canadian youth defined itself in opposition to America and its war in Vietnam. We were impressed by America, a nation with ten times our population and fifty times our military and economic clout. There was no sense that the great nation to the south meant us any harm. But we were mystified by Jim Crow, and Vietnam, and cold war zealotry. At the height of the civil rights movement, two teachers from my home town of Yellowknife in the Canadian Northwest Territories took a summer trip through the American South. They told us of an encounter with a lovely woman in Georgia who made her Negro maids eat in the kitchen because it was improper for white and black people to share a meal. Our teachers were appalled by such sentiments.
Canadians, of course, have our own species of bigotry but, like the woman from Georgia, we were largely blind to the sins that beset us. (more…)