The Content of His Character
Today we're celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. and his beautiful dream that we would view each other through the lenses of character, integrity, and kindness rather than color or ethnicity. It's an ideal my own father lived by.
In March of 1955, my father was the 21-year-old son of an American living on the island of Trinidad in the West Indies. My grandfather, the black sheep of his family, had left the U.S. more than 30 years before that to seek his fortune, and wound up working on oil rigs off the coasts of Venezuela and Colombia. My grandmother was Colombian, uneducated, cut off from her family by her unsatisfactory marriage to a wild non-Catholic.
My father had a rather neglected childhood. His father was home less than half the time and apparently took little interest in my dad, his oldest surviving son (four other children had died before my dad was born). My father was not sent to school until the British colonial government passed a truancy law in 1948. Almost 15, my dad had taught himself to read using newspapers and with the encouragement of two neighbors: the British owner of a second-hand book shop and a chess master from India.
Dad attended a British colonial school for three years and passed O-levels in English, French, history, chemistry, algebra, and geometry. With the equivalent of a high school education, he was qualified to work as a math and science tutor at a girls' school near his home.
Trinidad's population was then, and still is, primarily formed of people of African and Indian descent. My dad, half Anglo-American and half Colombian, was part of a racial minority. The British at that time held positions of power, but for everyone else the racial mix of African, Indian, Spanish, British, French Creole, Chinese, and native Carib was normal and accepted.
In March 1955 my dad left Trinidad with dreams of getting more education and making a successful life in the United States. He flew first to Puerto Rico and then to New York, where he boarded a bus for Bakersfield, California. There he would meet an aunt who had only learned of his existence when she received a letter from him the previous year.
My father had such high hopes and high ideals for this country.
He was proud of the U.S. citizenship he had from his father. So his slow travel through the southern part of our nation was a sad eye-opener. He was shocked to see bathrooms and drinking fountains labeled "White" or "Colored." He at first thought "Colored" meant "colorful," and didn't understand. The sign at a diner that read "Whites Only" revealed the distasteful truth. The United States of America, home of freedom, was a place of racial hatred, where equal rights were denied to a group of people with whom he had always freely mingled.
Approximately one year before my dad arrived in the U.S., Martin Luther King Jr. preached a wonderful sermon at Detroit's Second Baptist Church entitled "Rediscovering Lost Values." Here at the beginning of his career, King invited this congregation to rediscover the spiritual compass provided by faith in God. "The real problem is that through our scientific genius we've made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we've failed to make of it a brotherhood." He urged his listeners to return to God's laws, to be "honest and loving and just with all humanity." My father agreed with this ideal, and it's an ideal we must still work for all these years later.
Dad endured discrimination in the U.S., not because his skin was dark, but because he spoke with an accent and had been born somewhere else. Through hard work and sacrifice he eventually attained a solid middle class life, was a respected employer, a valued church member, and a dedicated husband and father. All of his children earned college degrees, and this made him very proud. I'm only sorry that since he passed away in 2006, he never knew his grandchildren as adults, and missed the joy of seeing his great-grandchildren.
Judged by the content of his character, Daddy was a great man. So on this weekend of Martin Luther King's birthday, I'll also remember and celebrate my dad.
Photo by LeeAnn Cline on Unsplash