Fifty years ago I was about the same age as George Mwenga pictured below with his arm around me.
Fifty years ago I lived thirty miles east of San Francisco in a town of 40,000 that had only one black family. They had a swimming pool and went to school in Oakland. That is all I knew about them. We did not have a swimming pool.
I became aware of this family because the newspapers talked about "civil rights", and then a minister called Dr. King led a march on Washington D.C. in 1963 and all the parents and teachers started tallking about the "issues."
My Dad was the friendliest, kindest person imaginable. He liked everyone and never spoke unkindly about any particular person, white or black. Yet, for a group of African Americans he used the "N" word. When I told him that word was not nice he looked at me and said but they are "N". It took five or six years but eventually that word was completely dropped from his vocabulary.
We were just ignorant of black people and wondered about their skin and features and what the differences could possibly be. We didn't know any black people. However, I loved baseball and had read every biography about my heroes. I of course read about Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays. I think it was then that I first realized that skin color did not make a difference about anything. Jackie and Willie deserve a lot of credit for helping a new generation begin to change their thinking.
In 1963 tensions arose in our little white high school and it eventually came to the point of teachers arguing one side against the other and it coming to blows in the teachers' lounge. Still, no black people were around, but thinking was being questioned and thinking was starting to change.
I got summer jobs working at Shell Oil Company, Del Monte Cannery, and Santa Fe railroad in Richmond, California and worked only with blacks. I found they were only different from me economically and that was it. One graveyard shift my friend wanted to know if I wanted to go with him to cash his check. I said "sure". This was Black Panther time in Oakland. I walked into a liquor/grocery store with my friend. It was a weekend and the place was full of fifty to sixty guys who had just cashed their checks, or their buddy had a check to cash, and I eventually figured out that I was the object of a lot of stares and tension. My friend realized that he had made a mistake by taking me there and we hurriedly left. I knew prejudice could work both ways and wasn't right in any situation.
In 1978 I was driving home from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona when I heard on the radio that the church had received revelation that worthy black men could receive the priesthood. When I walked in, Kristi had also heard the unexpected news and was so very happy. The tradition that had evolved to "doctrine" just did not seem right and we were pleased that a prophet led the church.
So here I am in the heart of Africa. I am surrounded everyday with black Africans and I honestly can say I forget that I am white. However, occasionally I think there is a little prejudice against whites. We are sometimes given deferential treatment, and charged higher prices and stared at, and called "muzungu". But I don't think it is at all comparable to the American black experience.
So, what would my Dad say if he saw that photo of George and I? He'd first want to know what we were laughing about and want to join in. He'd want to get to know George and ask about his family and his dreams for the future. Then later he would ask me if I had any black rub off on my hand. It has taken a new generation to finally not ask that question. How many generations will it take for me not to be charged a little higher price? Thank you Dr. Martin Luther King for bringing injustice into the "light of day" fifty years ago.