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Will you stand and watch?

By Staff | Jan 17, 2014

I remember laughing like a coward the first time I heard college friends lampoon Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Most everyone looked forward to the third Monday in January because, in observance of the national holiday, class wasn’t held.

Some of my close friends sheepishly refused to acknowledge the day as anything other than Lee-Jackson Day – a Virginia holiday created in 1889 to honor the legacies of Confederate Army Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

The braggadocious support for Lee-Jackson Day in my generation led to parties in their honor, but none of it was based on appreciation for what’s been gained through history of Virginia and it’s checkered past. Since 2000, Lee-Jackson Day has been officially observed on the Friday before MLK Jr. Day.

Lacking the courage to speak up, I stood idly by and listened to latent racism rear its head through wannabe tough guys, who grew up in cushy suburbs and felt some empty need to flex their faux-Southern pride.

These discussions always included the n-word – one of the ugliest words in the English language and the history of America. It was thrown around carelessly and justified because “our black friends” weren’t that. I cringe thinking about how pathetic I’ve been at times by not verbally disagreeing with something I was raised against and knew to be so wrong.

I grew up with plenty of black friends, and people of all races and creeds. Rural North Dakota doesn’t quite reflect that diversity and that’s fine too, but I didn’t anticipate hearing the n-word as often as I do.

I’ve dwelled on the subject for hours. Why are people who have never lived around blacks using this word? How has the hate been instilled in them? Do I have any obligations to say anything?

The answers don’t always come easy on topics like this. Unfortunately, some people grow up in toxic environments far from conducive to understanding and appreciating the differences that make our country great. But I tend to come back to this question: It’s 2014, why do people of my age allow hate to simmer in their hearts?

We don’t have to see eye-to-eye with everyone. That’s impossible.

We should have compassion for all human beings, who start out the same way and have no choice what race they are. Our country is still far from realizing the potential it has.

Maybe I’m naive to think that we can all do a better job of fostering respect for one another. It surely takes a collective effort. We shouldn’t remain silent when racist terms are used because they unnecessarily hurt so many and those using them fail to take into consideration other peoples’ backgrounds and family.

My hope is that Martin Luther King Jr. Day can be a starting point for people to find ways to educate themselves and their friends on the importance of loving thy neighbor, regardless of color.

Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t just about improving race relations. He was a

champion of justice for all. King’s writing can easily be found at libraries and online and a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a great place to start. His words still ring true and apply to many social issues facing us today.

“We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension,” King wrote. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Don’t be afraid to speak up. It’s not always easy; I know the feeling well.

While it baffles and saddens me that so many young people harbor racism, I find hope through the elderly.

Right here in Rugby I ate dinner one evening with a man in his 90s and his caretaker in her 80s. We spoke on a wide range of topics, including race. I was comforted hearing them speak of how they detested the n-word. They managed to get on the right side of history. Music has and continues to play a major role in uniting people. The following lyrics from Jim Croce come to mind when racism surfaces near me.

Which way are you going?

Which side will you be on?

Will you stand and watch

While all the seeds of hate are sown?

Hopefully, we can get to a point where theres no sides.

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