I was born in 1954. Later that year, the Supreme Court issued the landmark legal decision known as Brown v. Topeka Kansas Board of Education that effectively ended segregation in the nation’s schools by declaring that “Separate but equal” was inherently unequal. That case was argued by a black attorney named, Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Supreme Court Justice. In my first few years of life, I got to listen to Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley sing Rock n Roll songs like Maybelline, Johnny B. Goode, Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock. For all I knew, Elvis was black too. They sounded alike on the radio.
In 1964, I started pushing a broom at my dad’s printing business and Stevie Wonder made my day’s work go a lot better. That was the same year a boxer named Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. That was the first time the word Muslim entered my vocabulary. He even went so far as to resist the draft and lose his title because of his faith. In the summer of ’68, after Martin Luther King was assassinated, I had to sweep up the broken glass from the race riots in Kansas City. They burned down the corner of 35th and Indiana. My dad’s shop was at 36th and Indiana. When I wasn’t working for my dad that summer, I was at basketball camp at Rockhurst High School. That was the year Pierre Russell taught me how to shoot free throws. He was the best black basketball player I ever met and he taught me so well that I won a free throw shooting contest in high school.
I was just a sophomore in high school when the movie Woodstock came out and I was amazed by Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and Richie Havens. The Hendrix version of The Star Spangled Banner is my all-time favorite. By my senior year, I could sing every Al Green song on the radio. When my dad sent me away after college to work in New York City and then Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, I went with a cassette tape of Bob Marley’s album Exodus. Along with Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, they were my constant companions on the road. The contrast in black/white relations from NYC to the Deep South was stunning to me. I felt far more love from the blacks I worked with down south than any race I worked with in New York City. Maybe that’s because I was listening to Otis Redding and the Allman Brothers, who loved playing Willie Dixon songs.
I was still a newlywed when Bob Marley died in May of 1981. I thanked God that he recorded Redemption Song before he passed. I will never forget his haunting lyrics, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, None but ourselves can free our minds.” I know he was talking about black culture and apartheid in Africa but it still gave me a lot to think about and use in my own life. In my opinion, it’s the best acoustic solo ever recorded. Bob and I shared a birthday and so much more because he was just that good.
Here’s the point of this story. I’m white and it has been my great privilege to grow up in a world where so many people of all colors have impacted my life in amazing ways. That’s the white privilege I know all about and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I work with talented and caring African-Americans every day now. They treat me with respect and I treat them the same. I do what I can to make their day a little better and they respond in kind. I can’t even imagine my life without all these people of color to thank for making it very special. Last week I had to take care of a little black girl who got sick in my car. It was my privilege to serve her.
I’m not crazy enough to believe I’ve found the solution to racism. That’s something each of us has to face up to as individuals. All I know for sure is that racism will only be overcome by positive actions, kindness, compassion and love for all mankind by all of us, black and white. We have so much more to be gained by caring for each other and leaving the color distinction out of the equation than by arguing over every perceived slight. I really do feel privileged to work with kids of all races because it’s my opportunity to pay back some of the blessings I received in my youth. Maybe being privileged isn’t such a bad thing after all. Let’s start changing the world by remembering that, “None but ourselves can free our minds.” Thanks Bob.
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