The first date is April 4, 1968 – the date of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The second date is April 5th – my birthdate.
At this time each year I find myself reflecting on the conjunction of those two dates.
First – the birthday – I have never been a huge fan of celebrating my birthday. As I go through the aging process, I find myself even less inclined to mark the date. I suppose that it may have something to do with the fact that my father died in his early fifties, and with the exception of my maternal grandfather, I did not have a male in my family that represented for me what it meant to grow older. Since I did not have that example, I have tended to ignore age as I grow older. It may be self-centered of me to think that way, but i think it may be beneficial to have someone who serves as that model of growing old gracefully. I hope to write more about this in later blog posts.
On April 4, 1968 I was just at the end of my boot camp experience and we did not know about King’s assassination right away. I am not sure exactly when we did find out, but I admit that when I was made aware of it, the gravity of the killing did not register fully with me. Up to that point in my life I was not very knowledgeable about racial relations. I had grown up in a small mining town in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania. There were no African American families living in that town, and I did not know or have any contact with African Americans. Newspaper coverage on the civil rights movement was sparse, and so my main source of information was television news. Much of what I saw there did not seem to affect me deeply. I have spent many years working on forgiving that twenty year old young man for being so dense about the world going on about him.
After boot camp I was given orders to go to Viet Nam on a U.S. Navy cruiser. For some reason (perhaps because I was classified as a radioman and taught some electronic communication skills), I had my orders changed and I was being sent to a communications station in Ethiopia. Being as un-worldly as I was, I was not even sure where Ethiopia was and I had to look it up on a map. Those orders to go to Ethiopia hastened my growth and awareness as a citizen of the larger world. For the first time in my life, I suddenly found myself (a young white male) to be part of the minority, placed directly in a situation where the black majority represented the culture where I was living. It was the beginning of my education in racial relations. I, of course, still managed to hold on to what I would later be taught to recognize as ‘white privilege’. The Ethiopians I came to know began to teach me, sometimes graciously and sometimes not, about what it meant to live under white colonialism and what the world looked like from a different set of eyes.
Since that time I have learned a great deal and realize that I have a great deal more to learn. The confluence of the dates of April 4th and April 5th continue each year to lead me to reflect on my own identity, the identity of others, and my place and my obligation to make this a better world for all people to live in and grow together.