[This Commentary originally appeared in the February 8, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
This coming Monday we celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Actually, we used to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, now we just celebrate President’s Day. How unfortunate Lincoln chose to come into this world a mere week or so before George Washington’s birthday. I’m sure we would still celebrate Lincoln’s birthday had he been born in, say, March or June.
We cannot discount the gigantic symbol the Father of Our Country has become. Neither can we forget the courage embodied in Lincoln and his quest to promote freedom and equality for all. Maybe we can still recognize this great man by combining his birthday with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and call it “Lincoln/King Freedom Day.”
What a great idea. We can split the difference between the two and create a Monday holiday after the fourth Sunday in January. (How convenient, given they generally have the Superbowl on the fourth Sunday in January. We would then be able to enjoy the event during prime time and not worry about going to work the next day.)
Seriously, though, I really like the statement which would be made in honoring the icons of freedom on the same day. Each man represents a different race. One cannot deny the fervent symbolism in memorializing them both at the same time in a day called Freedom Day.
Then, perhaps, we can view the need for opportunity not in terms of race, but in terms of genuine need. It is too easy to view problems in racial terms rather than as fundamentally economic in nature. Such color-sensitive spectacles skew one’s ability to correctly conceptualize the dilemma one attempts to address. When this occurs, the solutions offered often fail miserably.
Case in point. Last month I attended the Rochester Rotary Luncheon where the program addressed “Pursuing the Dream in the 21st Century.” Essentially, it represented the Rochester Rotary’s effort to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a somewhat disinterested spectator during the sixties (I hadn’t yet reached my tenth birthday), I found the luncheon both enlightening and frustrating.
First some background. I sincerely doubt many of my (youngish) generation fully appreciate the magnitude of the racial problem America faced for nearly 100 years after the Civil War. Quite simply, we did not live through it. While the lack of experiencing conditioned prejudice entails we cannot speak of the magnitude of the plight of the oppressed, it also means we do not see bigotry as a civilized form of behavior. In essence, our upbringing had made us truly color-blind.
Quite naturally, then, I will always support the Jeffersonian principles in terms of equal rights and equal responsibilities. Most importantly, I believe every human being should have an equal opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Of course, any pragmatic individual also recognizes there exists no simple formula for legislating equality. At the very least, one can use civic forums as vanguards for the attainment of equal opportunity. This sentiment does not imply there are no bigots, it just means they are headed for extinction and we should focus on the critical issue of equal opportunity.
So the Rochester Rotary provided us Rotarians and guests with a distinguished panel of well known community leaders (i.e., no politicians). The speakers, unfortunately focused merely on the plight of the “African-American” and not other minorities, as if the “dream” were meant only for a select people. One speaker condemned the mostly white crowd. This particularly irked me, since he implied I was a bigot just by the color of my skin. (If this isn’t racist, I don’t know what is.)
Furthermore, in his frightening speech, he called for all young African-Americans ages 10-21 to come under his command so he could train them in acts of non-violence “or otherwise, if necessary.” Wow. Nothing like constructive dialogue. It felt like an old Black Panthers rally. It really disappointed me to hear a leader of our community calling for a revolution. I thought we had progressed beyond the barbarism of the selfish sixties.
The final panelist began with a comforting dissertation regarding Martin Luther King’s fight for the poor (all poor – whatever the color of their skin). He reminded us the civil rights movement consisted of many multi-racial initiatives. Again, freedom knows no color. He appeared “right on” when he suggested the problem of opportunity we must address revolves around economics, not race.
But then he went way off base. He mentioned “redistribution of wealth” and “questioning our commitment to capitalism.” Again, the speaker caught me off guard. Hadn’t he witnessed the recent events of Eastern Europe? Doesn’t he know communism is dead? Besides, while everyone agrees equal opportunity makes common sense, there persists no consensus on the appropriateness of handouts. Sure, if someone cannot work, we should help them. But, any able-bodied person ought to be given the chance to earn a wage, not merely given a wage.
Only one brave soul asked a question of these three panelists. She hit the nail right on the head. “How can we provide people with the opportunity they need?” she queried. Notice she did not limit her question to any racial minority. The enlightened woman expressed concern for all the underprivileged.
The quick response of the revolutionary: “I cannot speak for the poor white people. I only speak for the poor African-Americans.” One may propose, then, that this man misses the whole point. One questions if he speaks for anyone. Until he removes the issue of color which clouds his mind, he cannot experience freedom himself nor allow others around him to feel freedom.
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]