The events of this week are reason for pause. Monday was Martin Luther King Day, which always sparks a personal memory. When I was a student at Colorado State University, a friend and I founded an organization called the Committee on Racial and Ethnic Equality (CREE). Our general purpose was to address racial issues on campus; our notable accomplishment was to get funding for a student-run program that had several objectives: 1. to recruit eligible minority students to the campus; 2. to mentor and tutor the recruits individually, to help them assimilate into the academic and cultural conditions; 3. to eventually increase the percentage of minorities in the campus population to reflect the state population ratios. The program showed some initial success and garnered some recognition around the country.
As a result, one of my CREE associates, David Williams, and I were asked to speak at a race relations conference being held at American University in Washington, D.C. So there we were, two young college students, flying from Denver on April 4, 1968, excited by the trip (my first time on an airplane) and doing last-minute preparations for our presentation, when the pilot announced that Martin Luther King had been killed. I vaguely recall our words of disbelief and shared tears of grief. When we landed, the city was on fire, and our conference agenda of unity and hopeful strategies was displaced by flames of anger and a pall of despair.
We wanted to be peacekeepers in the situation, but raw fear prevailed. There was no public transportation, so we walked through the riot. I felt more comfortable being with David, a 6′-4” black man, but I was also well aware that my presence put him in an awkward danger. He was brave; I slunk in his shadow.
It was a bleak and sorrowful day. Much was lost, including our own patience and optimism. From the perspective of that flaming racial war zone forty years ago, not a soul could have dared to imagine what happened on Tuesday.
The very same streets were this week filled with tens of thousands gathered in a racially and politically harmonic triumph. At the moment of Barack Obama’s inauguration, billions of individual mental and emotional barriers were crumbled to dust. Through the ages, mankind has been cursed. We have wreaked unbelievable mayhem on our fellow humans, driven only by foggy, illegitimate mental constructs. There exists a dark world in our collective subconscious that is untrue and wicked.
In 2008, however, America voted against that world. And then on January 20th, 2009, our worst demons were driven back to their dark corners.
We live in a different and better world today.