I was only nine in the summer of 1963 when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held a march in my hometown of Detroit, but I remember the news coverage. The rally was notable for being the largest civil rights demonstration to date and was a prelude to the historic march on Washington, D.C. later that summer. That event is celebrated for Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech but he first unveiled that stirring and history-changing rhetoric at the Detroit event, revising it only minimally before D.C.
I remember how inspired my mother was by the march, and how worried my father was that there would be violence. My father needn’t have troubled himself. No violence marred the day. I probably would have had no context in which to apprehend Dr. King’s dream except for something that happened several years before.
My parents took me on a business trip to Old Point Comfort in Virginia, where I was looked after one evening by an African-American nanny provided by the hotel. Before my parents left for their dinner the nanny was instructed in my care and feeding. She was to take me downstairs to the hotel dining room for dinner at an appointed hour.
I don’t remember her name but I do recall that she was very kind and a lot of fun. Finally we went downstairs to the dining room. I was looking forward to having fried chicken, my favorite eating-out food, and playing the games on the back of the kiddies menu with my nice babysitter. Except that I was seated by myself, alone in a huge fancy dining room, lost in an overlarge winged back chair while the nanny stood outside and indicated to the tuxedoed waiter the meal I was to order from the menu that I held up.
She stayed there until I finished my dessert, watching me like a hawk, then met me at the host stand and escorted me back to the room. I asked her why she didn’t come in and sit with me and she said, “That’s just not the way things are done around here.” She smiled and patted me on the back of my head as we exited the elevator. I did not know what she was talking about but I did understand that there was something very wrong about it. Why couldn’t a little kid sit down and be served dinner with his babysitter? Why couldn’t this nice lady come in to the same restaurant that I could? What was different about us?
Tomorrow, not too many miles from where that hotel stood, Barack Obama will be sworn in as president of the United States, the first African-American Commander-in-Chief. He will lead a country that was founded more than two centuries earlier when black slaves were considered property and not people, and 46 years after Dr. King shared his dream. It still seems like a dream, one that is finally coming true.
Edward Grinnan is Editor-in-Chief and Vice President of GUIDEPOSTS Publications.