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I grew up Black in New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton. In the early 80s, I can remember walking through downtown Trenton on a Saturday afternoon with my father and feeling that something was wrong. I remember seeing homeless men and women stopped in front of abandoned office buildings and boarded up storefronts.
I asked my father what happened to the businesses, not fully understanding why so many people walked the streets in despair. I was confused. Everything I learned about my hometown didn’t match what I was witnessing: the monuments to the battles that made Trenton the turning point of the revolutionary war, the stories we learned in school about turn of the century wealth that made Trenton prosperous, and the community pride that was said to exist in every neighborhood in town. How could a city steeped in such a rich history, with such wealth and pride, lose so much of its light and its soul?
We stopped in the middle of our walk and sat on a bench and talked. I remember my father explaining to me that Trenton, like so many other cities big and small, erupted into violence in the days and weeks following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That Saturday, at six years old, while sitting on a bench in a desolate downtown street with my father, I learned for the first time that there were two Americas.
My father was careful to note that everything I learned in school about the rich heritage of our city was true, but that it was only one side of the story. There had always been an “other” America throughout our country’s young history, communities of people who had yet to articulate their respected place in our society.
I learned that Dr. King was a major voice in a struggle for equality and civil rights for this “other” America. He believed that his calling was to be a voice of hope for healing the American consciousness and to help create the laws and moral practices that could unite us finally as one people. My father explained that Dr. King’s assassination, in the prime of his life and at the height of his profound push for civil rights and equality, was a deep blow to those living in the “other” America, those who were looking toward him to walk them into the promised land he would preach about.
When the news of Dr. King’s demise reached the poor communities of America’s cities, it was but a matter of time before anger and violence erupted nation-wide. America’s moral compass was taken away from us. Throughout the country, anger and frustration filled the streets of American cities in a time when protestors, looters, and mourners alike clashed with the heavy hand of law enforcement for days on end. In the years that followed the riots and demonstrations, white business owners and residents fled cities for newly minted suburbs. The “other” America that existed in the shadows of our society was now left to toil with the challenges of blight and poverty that would plague cities for decades to come.
From that Saturday sitting with my father forward, I paid special attention to Dr. King’s unfinished work. I understood that his dream of a country unified by common respect and equal treatment for all would take each of us obligating ourselves to a personal journey towards growth in our humanity. We must each resist the idea of hoarding our privilege. Instead, as Dr. King did, we should use every ounce of our power, voice, and position to empower everyone around us.
My father’s description of the burning cities reminded me of the recent upheaval we’ve experienced in our cities in response to racial injustice still rooted in our society. There’s still much work to be done to heal our society and secure the equal rights outlined for all citizens in our constitution.
A great moral obligation came over me early in my life. It started for me when I walked the desolate streets of my hometown with my father and discovered the urgency that was lost when the last fire went out from the riots that broke our cities and the “other” America that was left behind. I understand that we have an obligation to see the possibilities in all people and feel compassion towards our neighbors’ stories. We can not write the great American story without the contribution, the perspective, and the dreams of all people in our society. This is the hope and dream that Dr. King lived and died for and the great work that must continue in halls of justice, board rooms and main streets throughout our country.
As we celebrate the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s each do our part to break down the walls that divide our country and do our part to live with compassion and care for each other.