To company associates and friends:
Today, both Bensonwood and Unity Homes are observing Martin Luther King Day as a paid holiday. This started for us in the mid-1980’s, so the institutional memory about what prompted that decision is starting to fade. It’s a personal saga, as much as it is a piece of company history, so I’m going to use my time off today to tell you the whole story.
The short version is that although Martin Luther King Day was signed into law as a federal holiday in 1983, New Hampshire and a few other states held out. A few years later, when there was yet more news about NH politicians stalling the decision and proclaiming the illegitimacy of Dr. King and the holiday, we decided (in 1985 or 1986, I think) that we could declare it as one of our paid holidays to honor MLK and to recognize the importance of the continuing struggle for racial equality. It was a small act of defiance about our state’s position, but it was at least something we could do to demonstrate our beliefs on the matter. We also just may have been the first New Hampshire company to honor MLK Day as a paid holiday.
Unfortunately and embarrassingly, New Hampshire was the very last state to recognize MLK Day, and it didn’t officially happen until 2000. But about 15 years earlier, we did our best to set the right example.
Now, for the back story. Why is Martin Luther King Day so important to us? Why did I insist that we observe it when New Hampshire was refusing to do so?
It begins in my youth. I was brought up to believe in civil rights and social justice, and to understand that as a country, there has always been a big gaping divide between our fundamental founding principles and our actions in policy and practice. We were also taught to believe that justice and truth will eventually prevail, and to have faith in the inherent goodness of mankind.
My dad and mom were ardent Christians, and believed that racial discrimination is deeply unjust and un-Christian, and that the outcomes in suffering and poverty offends the teachings of Christ, and our very humanity. My dad was a “lifetime” member of the NAACP, a dedication that began when he and my mom discovered in the 1950’s that traveling African-Americans could not get a hotel room, and had to find alternative lodging with “good Samaritans” like them.
Through the years, we learned about various civil rights events at the dinner table conversations and as a subject of prayer. We didn’t have a TV in those early years, but my dad would rent one on special occasions, and we’d watch transfixed, even if the technology was the main attraction. Very often, the TV rental was stimulated by the civil rights issues of the late 50’s and 60’s, including the March on Washington in 1963 and MLK’s great “I have a Dream” speech, the Selma marches of 1965, and other events. The importance of the fight for racial justice was seared into my memory and consciousness.
I went to college (Colorado State University) with the intention to play football, and although I was doing well enough, I ended up disliking the program, partially because they wanted me to be 30 pounds heavier and doing less academically in order to “concentrate on football.” There’s more to this, but the point is I quit the team, and when I told the coach (Mike Lude), his reply became a source of motivation ever since: “Benson, you’re throwing your life away!” I didn’t think so.
The big reason I quit football is that I had an idea. I knew nearly all of the blacks on campus because they were either on the football team or the basketball team, or related to someone on those teams. For a campus of 12,000+ students, the tiny minority population was just wrong. There were serious issues involving discrimination and a lack of commitment by a state institution to integrate appropriately. Therefore, I thought we could do something about it, and together with some friends, we founded the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Equality (CREE) to bring attention to the problems, and support the minorities on campus. My two co-founders in the organization were David Williams and Meredith Springs. We accomplished a lot, and certainly raised awareness with the administration and students. We even helped to get funding for a program to bring more minorities to campus, and played a key role in its functions and execution.
Eventually, I was appointed to be the Director of Race Relations for the student government, and maintained an office in the middle of the Student Center, that became the center for CREE and other minority student activity.
In the spring of 1968, David Williams and I were invited to be delegates of CSU to attend a conference in Washington D.C. on race relations issues. Instead, we found ourselves engulfed in one of the most tragic events in American civil rights history. We arrived at roughly the same time Martin Luther King was killed. As we were making our way to the conference venue and our lodging at American University, riots erupted. David and I found ourselves in the middle of the tempest in the streets. Ironically, in that situation we were both frightened about being vulnerable because of the color of our skin. We survived with different stories about which one of us was heroic, but there was no conference other than the one out in the streets. Martin Luther King was dead, and at that moment his legacy was uncertain.
When we got back to CSU, David, Meredith and I organized a march in honor of Dr. King. David remembers that some professors joined in as we moved along, and we were a little irked that they seemed to want to “lead” the march. I don’t remember that, but I do remember that it grew significantly and felt meaningful and important. I also remember that it was solemn and peaceful and tearful. Martin Luther King, whose work and words I had followed in belief and action, was dead.
From that moment in my life to the founding a building company in New Hampshire was a twisty, weird path, but that’s what happened. I like very much what I’m doing now and believe in it immensely, but I don’t like the lack of racial and cultural diversity in this corner of the world and I miss my friends, neighbors, and colleagues from those former times. My geography has changed; the racial mix of my community as changed; but my core beliefs and values have not. The struggle for racial equality is not over. Dr. King’s dream isnot fulfilled. It is the very least we can do to acknowledge the martyrdom of the man, and do our part to ensure that his famous words will eventually be true:
“The arc of the moral universe is strong, but it bends toward justice.”