When Will the Dream Become Reality?

Do you remember all the fussing and furor we went through when someone first suggested that we observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a national holiday? That someone, by the way, was Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, who proposed the honor not long after Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. Predictably, a wave of hostility greeted the idea—hostility often couched in polite opposition (“We’ve never done this before for a private citizen”) that only masked a racism that was hidden but still deeply felt. The measure failed at first when it finally came before Congress in 1979, and it wasn’t until 1983 that President Ronald Reagan signed it into law.

Even though King was born on Jan. 15 (he would have been 83 this year), the commemoration takes place, as with many other holidays, on a Monday—in this case, the third Monday of January. That makes it pretty much like the other Monday holidays, an occasion for a day off and a chance to go to the mall. That’s too bad, since there’s a wealth of evidence that indicates we need to remember the ideals that Martin Luther King lived and died for more than ever.

I thought of that not long ago when I came across a story about Ruby Bridges. Even if you were around 50 or 60 years ago, that name probably won’t ring a bell. But her picture—well, you’d be likely to recognize that. It made front pages all over the country in November, 1960. Ruby Bridges was six years old at the time, and in the picture she was surrounded by federal marshals escorting her into a New Orleans school—an all-white school where Ruby, a first-grader, all decked out in a jumper-style dress and a white sweater, carrying a book bag, would be the only black student. If you happened to miss the photo at the time, you probably saw the scene rendered in a Norman Rockwell painting. It was a classic.

A story on the web site of AOL News, written by Dave Thier, brought readers up to date on Ruby Bridges. Across 50 years, she still remembers that first day of school, of course. With all the people lining the streets, shouting and throwing things, it seemed like Mardi Gras to the little girl. Because white parents had withdrawn their children from classes, she spent the full day in the principal’s office, doing nothing. “I remember thinking, ‘This school is easy,’” she said.

She finally got to class—thanks to a visiting teacher from Boston, since the local teaching staff would have nothing to do with her—and proved to be a quick learner, one who appreciated the woman who taught her. “She showed me her heart,” Bridges recalls.

Ruby Bridges raised a family, worked as a travel agent, and now describes herself as an educational activist. She’s especially alarmed at the disparity in school achievement between races, a disparity that she attributes (as do most educators) to poor schools in predominantly black areas.

“If we create an environment where kids can work together and play together, that’s the best thing for all of us, because we need each other,” she said.

We need each other. That, in four short words, is what Martin Luther King’s dream was all about. And that’s why we can never forget all that he meant—meant not just to some of us, but to everyone.

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