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Remember how our country treated Dr. King when he was alive

Peter Goodman is a Las Cruces news columnist, radio commentator, lawyer, and self-proclaimed rabble-rouser, and the author of The Moonlit Path, a novel.
Peter Goodman is a Las Cruces news columnist, radio commentator, lawyer, and self-proclaimed rabble-rouser, and the author of The Moonlit Path, a novel.


Martin Luther King Day? A national holiday?

I couldn’t have imagined such a thing on the April evening when I walked numbly along Manhattan’s 3rd Street, processing the fact that Dr. King had just been shot. He was a leader in the movement I was a foot soldier in. Selma had inspired me to do some civil rights work in the rural county east of Memphis. Many Negro families lived in shacks. A huge sign at the county line celebrated a state championship won by the Fayette County High School girls’ basketball team. Black kids didn’t go there. They went to the Fayette County Training School. King was a leader in a movement in which I was a foot soldier.

Stumbling along 3rd Street, I made eye contact with some Black guys standing around. I probably gave a helpless, sad shrug, thinking of King. One guy reached out to hand me something. Suddenly I thought he was poking a lighted cigarette into my palm. (I was, after all, a white guy.) As I snatched my hand away, I saw, and still see clearly, the marijuana joint he’d been handing me, falling toward the sidewalk. I picked it up and took a hit, reflecting on how the moment had gotten inside me.

Our country has changed greatly, but not enough that we should forget or ignore “racism.”

In our small suburban village, when my mother started a neighborhood cub scout den, it included Jewish kids, Protestant kids, the mix I was, and two Black kids. It was nothing we thought about. (I guess she did. One project we did for a gathering of dens celebrated George Washington Carver. Long afterward, she told me that some mothers hadn’t liked seeing a den with Black kids in it.)

In high school, if a white girl hung out with a black guy, the school called to inform the girl’s family. As a new kid, recently kicked out of prep school, I saw the ethnic tension between blacks and Italian kids. I was friends with both, of course. But they didn’t mix so much. Later, working with kids in Harlem, we had long talks. Being white, I was as strange to them as I was long afterward to Tibetan Khampas, who reached out in amazement to touch the hair growing from the back of my hand.

Once in Tennessee three of us took a local kid out for lunch to celebrate something with him. When we asked where we should go, he named the diner his brother had once been knifed for tying to integrate. We went. Our hamburgers had such an excess of unordered hot sauce that we could not have eaten them except to show the owner she couldn’t drive us away. When I tried to pay, she kept waving the bill at the kid, shouting “The [N-word] pays! The [N-word] pays.”

King grew up in that South. Slavery was gone, but whites tried their best to replicate it. At six, he and a white friend were sent to different schools. The white boy’s parents forbade him to see Martin. They told Martin, “We’re white. You’re colored.” When Martin’s parents explained, Martin said he would hate all white people, always. His parents said he had a Christian duty to love them.

The oppression that killed King had permeated every moment of his life. The nation honoring him shouldn’t forget how it treated him.

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.