I do not remember much about the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. It was just another day to someone attending an all-white school in the southwestern corner of Missouri.
I vaguely knew that Dr. King was important, but I had no idea why.
I was an adult when I discovered the civil rights movement and I remember thinking, “Why have I never heard anything about this? “ And I quickly began devouring books on the subject, immersing myself in the stories of the Freedom Riders, the Birmingham church bombing, Freedom Summer, and the murder of Emmett Till.
Today, I teach an eighth grade English class that was made possible by the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and each year my students spend almost the entire third quarter writing a research paper over some aspect of the movement.
One thing I have been able to tell my students is that the civil rights movement changed the way the United States thinks of race. Because of the sacrifices of so many during the 1950s and 1960s, I tell them, even though racism still exists, we have made great strides toward a more harmonious society.
Recent events make me wonder if I have been mistaken.
While the election of Barack Obama was undeniably a step forward for the United States, it has also served to expose the dirty little secret that has been there all along- there is still a significant racist component in this country.
How can we say otherwise when one of the heroes of the movement, John Lewis, is attacked with racial epithets as he approached the House to cast a vote on the most significant bill since the civil rights legislation of the ‘60s.
How can we say that when protesters have no qualms about spitting on Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, an African American Congressman from Missouri.
How can we say otherwise when so many in the Tea Party contingent boldly wave signs with racist caricatures of our president, and when the “N” word slips so casually from their lips?
How can we say otherwise when we see venom directed toward Barack Obama that goes far beyond simple disagreement with issues?
The election of Barack Obama has exposed a cancer that has been there all along, but appears to be far greater than we ever realized.
While the majority of those protesting different policies of the Obama Administration most likely are simply those who oppose the expansion of government in our lives, it is becomingly increasingly evident that racism is playing a key role, especially among those who appear willing to use violence and who are willing to brazenly sling racial epithets in public.
My students have completed their research project for this school year. Next year, I may have to rethink how I teach the subject. Those great strides that I have proudly pointed out to my students each year for the past 11 years may have been just a fleeting illusion.