As a pre-teen, I memorized the entire ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. At age 11, I had The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s cadence and hand gestures down exactly. My parents would often direct me to recite it when friends and family would stop by our home.
When I memorized the 1,667-word monologue, one stanza continues to ring clear to me. King said, “The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom; we cannot walk alone.”
How profound and prophetic.
Fifty-seven years have passed since the words flowed from King’s lips. Today, we observe whites, alongside Blacks, asserting Black Lives Matter. I am amazed to see the diversity. We see men and women of all hues, youth and seniors, poor and privileged, speaking up and speaking out.
These groups realize the injustice in the American justice system. They recognize the disparities in healthcare and the inequities in education. There are failings in financial services with respect to minorities, and a course correction is necessary to even the balance sheet.
What is encouraging is the righteous indignation by white brothers and sisters in the wake of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, the shooting of Jacob Blake and countless more. But in the scheme of things, we don’t need a couple of solos actors seeking transformation; our nation needs a chorus of change agents demanding reform.
When will hate abate?
When I learned the “I Have A Dream” speech, my family was living in a predominant white community. I remember hearing the “N” word used indiscriminately by my Catholic classmates. The kids probably didn’t know how painful it was for me to hear the slur. Yet, when the children caught themselves, I would often hear, “We aren’t referring to you, you’re one of the good ones.” I ask myself rhetorically, what is the distinction?
In high school, my guidance counselor strongly urged me to pursue the military because in his mind, the academic rigors of college were beyond my intelligence. I did not take his advice and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications. After a successful broadcast career, I earned an MBA with honors at age 52.
The most egregious memory of racial discrimination I recall was during a summer night in 1989. I was pulled over by three suburban police officers. One cop approached my car with his revolver pointed in my face. He shouted, “Hands on the steering wheel.” After the roadside interrogation, he claimed my vehicle had an inoperable tail light.
Fortunately, I was able to convince the police officer that I was in his city for a legitimate purpose. I told him I was leaving (the former) WUAB studios where I worked as a television reporter. Apparently, driving while Black in Parma (at that time) could be hazardous to my health.
My story likely has Black and brown men shaking their heads in agreement. Countless men of color have been stopped in a similar manner for dubious reasons. In all sincerity, if our country is to truly overcome the atrocities committed against minorities, then it will take progressive white people who empathize with our plight to help make the difference.
I am no longer a television reporter; I am the mayor of a south suburban community. I have had discussions with my police officers and shared my previous experience as a victim of racial profiling. Together, citizens, police and leadership must call out racism, sexism and all other “isms” and stop hate in its tracks.
Influencers must speak up in classrooms, boardrooms, courtrooms, and yes, emergency rooms. And when this happens, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last.
Benjamin Holbert III is mayor of Woodmere.