Yesterday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. I can distinctly remember the time it happened. Though I lived just forty-five miles away from Memphis where the killing occurred, it might as well have been a thousand miles. I was a card-carrying member of the poor class of American citizens Dr. King went to Memphis to assist in protesting the deplorable working conditions under which the sanitation workers were employed. The workers were underpaid and mistreated in ways no one would wish on their favorite pet.
After fifty years, things have change a lot for the better; however, I must use the trite expression here that’s become common: A lot of progress has made, but more is needed. That statement reminds me that Dr. King’s dream is yet too much only a dream. Many Americans are still dreaming about what could be, while the forces that created the conditions under which the sanitation workers of Memphis worked are continuing to create a nightmare.
When I look back on 1968, I was a poor seventeen-year-old kid at the time of Dr. King’s murder, living in Cross County Arkansas, west across the Mississippi River. I had dreams of carving out a better life for myself than what I was experiencing at the time. Back then I lived in a house without running water, air conditioning and central heat. Life was a challenge to say the least. It was a challenge for many folks I knew, who were existing in the same conditions under which I and my family were living. My meager hope, a few months before Dr. King’s death, was to graduate from the all-black high school I attended and get a job at “the” local factory. That factory was called Halsted’s. Until this day, I’m not sure what was produced at that place. They produced something related to steel. Back then, all I could see was that black folks were working at Halsted’s and making more money than they had ever made in Cross County Arkansas. My fate was about to take a turn I had not imagined.
In the early part of my last semester in senior high school, I was called to the counsellor’s office one day. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why Mr. Shaw wanted to speak with me. I was not a bad kid, never in trouble. Mr. Shaw and I got along well, so why did he want to speak with me? To my surprise, he asked me if I had given any thought to going to college. I told him no. I had no money to pay for college. His response was, “What has that got to do with anything?” I had good grades, and I didn’t know that there were grants, loans and work-study programs available to students like me. This conversation was the beginning of a course change that would steer my life in a different direction than what I had planned. During the fall of 1969, I attended Arkansas AM&N in Pine Bluff, a historically black college. After four years, I graduated from that same school, which had become a part of the University of Arkansas system between my junior and senior year. I was the first in my extended family to attend college.
As the saying goes, to make a long story short, my life has seen me receive a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and having a forty-year career in Arkansas state government, culminating in me retiring from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as the associate vice chancellor for Human Resources. That’s quite a leap from the dream of working at Halsted’s isn’t it? Dr. King’s sacrifice, as well of the ultimate sacrifice of so many others made my journey from the backwoods of Cross County Arkansas to where I am today.
Too many Americans have only a dream of being somewhere other than where they are. When I open the newspaper in the morning, watch the news on TV, sit for hours in front of my computer on social media, I can’t help but feel that a lot of things have changed, but so much remains the same. The news headlines today would be a disappointment to Dr. King in many ways. Justice, dignity and access to the dreams our country was established to offer its citizens are yet too far out of reach for far too many.
I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.