What’s a white man to do on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday?
I’d venture to say that most of us in this position are grateful for a day off from work or a break from the mail. But then there are those like myself for whom that’s just not enough.
The most fulfilling MLK Day I ever experienced was attending a non-denominational church service at the California State University campus in Northridge where the guest speaker was none other than Oprah’s long-time beau, Stedman Graham, who earns his living giving motivational talks. And on that night, it was easy to see why the world’s most wealthy and powerful African-American woman would be drawn to him. He’s a gifted orator, and we were hanging on his every word.
A few years have since passed, and I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t attempted to duplicate this memorable time by checking into similar local events to honor the legacy of Dr. King with whom I share an Alma Mata. We both attended BostonUniversity, which makes me just as obligated to properly remember him as being aU.S.citizen who believes intensely in the right of equality.
So when MLK Day 2007 rolled around, I winced upon realizing my complacent pattern once again had taken hold, and I’d end up using most of the time getting caught up on doctor appointments.
Then as if the hand of Dr. King himself reached down upon me, I found myself in the middle of two jarring encounters that reminded me just how far we have to go before realizing his dream. The chief obstacles: hunger and poverty.
At about 6:30 in the evening on my way home from a periodontal appointment a few blocks from the UCLA campus, I stopped in at a Subway restaurant to grab a quick bite to eat. That’s when the double irony took hold. As I was enjoying a quiet dinner while reading a chapter on slavery in “The People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn, who was a beloved professor of mine at BostonUniversity, a disheveled black man who appeared to be homeless walked in to inquire how much it would cost to order a submarine sandwich. Upon learning he didn’t have enough money in his pocket, the man looked dejected and left the
I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation and followed him out the door. Fully aware that another missed opportunity was hanging in the air, I sprang into action and offered to buy the man dinner. He was eternally grateful and repeatedly wished me a happy New Year, saying how hungry he was and appreciative of the gesture. It was at that moment when I knew this was about as good as it gets for someone like myself to spend a federal holiday from which I’m ethnically and emotionally removed. I also wondered how Dr. King would have viewed my gesture and hoped he’d approve.
Earlier in the day, I was hit with a similar reminder. A black man holding an earnest sign asking for money to help him care for his family with the words “may God bless you” scrawled upon it was making the rounds by car windows at a major L.A. intersection down the street from where I live. I’ve also seen white men and even women panhandling on the same corner many times. On this particular day, I reached into a pile of coins I keep handy for parking meters and handed them over to the gentleman before the light turned green. He smiled broadly and offered a sincere thanks before I drove off.
It was a tiny gesture and, unfortunately, also a Band-Aid over what continues to be a shameful and serious problem in this country. What’s so damn disconcerting to me is that at a time when we’re fighting a highly unpopular war halfway around the world, Americans continue to abandon their own war on poverty at home. That has to change. About 40 million to 50 million Americans live in poverty, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen.
Our democracy and free-market system are held up as a model for the world to emulate, and if you ask me, it’s probably as close to a Utopian society that humankind has been able to achieve. The American way of life is awe-inspiring and the envy of everyone. It certainly doesn’t take long to fully appreciate it when traveling to a foreign land. But we must do so much more to take care of our own.
“Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses longing to be free,” it says on the Statue of Liberty. More than 200 years following the birth of this nation, we’re still scrambling to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. Well, I have a dream, too. And that dream is for us to band together as never before to eradicate this scourge not only from our beloved country but the face of the earth. A tall order, for sure, but unless we make more of an effort, our way of life might well implode under the weight of continued strife.