On April 4th, 1968, I was ironing my work uniform in the apartment of two friends when they told me that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., had been shot. The city of Pittsburgh — my home town — erupted in a destructive rage that my current home — Indianapolis — did not see. Robert Kennedy’s eloquence and compassion in a speech that night has been partially credited for Indy’s subdued response to the tragedy. In 1985, I was listening to Stevie Wonder sing “Happy Birthday,” his effort to get a national holiday for Dr. King. “I just never understood/ How a man who died for good/ Could not have a day that would/ Be set aside for his recognition,” Stevie sang. Ronald Reagan had signed the holiday into law in 1983, but it would not be officially observed in some states until 1986, and all 50 states in 2000.
For many years my email sign-off was “peace.love.understanding.” I don’t remember when I adopted the phrase, but for a long time, it was my greeting or closing salutation. I did not know the phrase’s origin until someone said, in response to my greeting, “What’s so funny about it?” I found that I had subconsciously co-opted Elvis Costello’s song, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding.” Costello sang, “I ask myself/ Is all hope lost?/ Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?”
A Netflix offering about a neighborhood in Australia populated by indigenous people, called “Redfern Now,” is written, directed, produced and performed by those same indigenous (aboriginal) people. One episode — which originally aired in November, 2012 — was titled “Stand Up.” The plot centered around a young indigenous man attending a predominantly white prep school, who is encouraged by his father to refuse to stand up at the singing of the Australian National Anthem, saying, “It doesn’t belong to us.” (“Indigenous people” and “aborigines” are terms used to describe the people native to Australia prior to its establishment as a British penal colony.) Four years after this episode first aired, a National Football League quarterback, in a stated effort to draw attention to assaults and discriminatory behavior against African-Americans, refused to stand up for the playing of the National Anthem of the United States. The gesture was a lonely and little-noticed one until the nation’s head publicly chided NFL owners for allowing this peaceful protest, saying that the “S.O.Bs” (the kneeling players) should be fired.
The self-described “black fellas” of Australia’s Redfern district and the African-American football player (and those who later joined him) who refused to “stand up” had different reasons for a common action. The boy is encouraged by his father to refuse to acknowledge an anthem written on the backs of his oppressed ancestors and the other man wants the nation to acknowledge and address racist behavior directed toward those whose melanin and heritage he shares.
Monday, January 15th, will be the 18th year that the nation will observe a national holiday to honor the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who organized and led peaceful protests against the exclusion of African Americans from polling booths, water fountains and public transportation, despite the violence targeted against the protesters, a violence which ultimately resulted in his assassination. Almost 50 years after his death, there are still great gouges in our social fabric, gaps in understanding and a lack of commonality of vision. But when I see young people reading and writing and advocating and marching, I do not believe that all hope is lost. I believe that there is room in our collective hearts for peace, love, and understanding.
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