The summer of 1969, without warning, a young black girl was shot in the back of the head and killed by a white police officer. Vivian Strong and her friends were having a party in a vacant apartment, playing music and dancing. She was 14.
I was 13 that summer. I don’t remember hearing about Vivian, despite the killing taking place in my hometown. I don’t remember any conversation at home, at school, or with my friends about Vivian’s death. I don’t remember anyone explaining why this happened or how the trial of the police officer resulted in acquittal.
Vivian’s mother had a mental breakdown. Vivian’s younger sister became the caretaker of the even younger children. I don’t remember anyone talking about this either.
A half century later, as we mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, many of us who live the privileged life of being white, will give the day little more than a brief reflection. Even with the awakenings of 2020, we’re a country where being Black is an impossible burden.
My classmate named Francene was the sole black child in my junior high school at the time Vivian was shot down. My white privilege left me blind to any true understanding of the depth and breadth of injustice in many forms that King sought for us to see.
If we live a life sheltered from hatred and violence, creating peace and justice in our community may not feel like a mandate. Other than reading The Diary of Anne Frank as a girl, I was oblivious to the enduring legacy of anti-Semitism until I was in law school. A 2018 survey revealed that 66% of millennials could not identify Auschwitz as a concentration camp, despite over a million Jews having been led there to die.
So how do we honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. if the importance of his message seems distant from our lives? While not all of us are born to be activists or advocates, King gave us a path. And like all paths we take, we start where we are and take the next step. Here are some possibilities:
Start learning. Start speaking up. When you hear that joke that isn’t okay. When you see that there is not a single person of color included. When you see your employer is not living up to its pledge to diversity. Each of us has a voice, and opportunities abound.
The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad person but the silence over that by the good.- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Start reaching out. Whether it is hiring or selecting people to serve on that next Zoom panel, how much effort have you dedicated to inviting a person of color? Will you go out of your way to support a minority-owned business? Are you mentoring anyone who is Black?
People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Start serving. MLK Day is designated as a national day of service. If you don’t have any formal volunteering planned for the day, who is that person in need who might benefit from your help today? Is it time you act on that intention to begin volunteering this year?
Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve. – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here’s wishing you a day spent living the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr.