It’s not easy trying to explain the historical significance of Martin Luther King, Jr. to a 7-year-old. Because there’s some real ugliness involved when you talk about the need for the civil rights movement, and there’s that parental instinct to protect your child from the world’s evils.
On the other hand, the way to prevent future evils is to instill the young with the right morals. And that’s what Martin Luther King fought for.
What he gave his life for.
Of course, if you listen to some pundits, they might suggest that racism isn’t really a problem any more. What we’re experiencing now, they’ll say, is “white guilt.” But, as a reporter, I’ve encountered several little tidbits of racism through the years.
Once, I interviewed a fairly well known sportscaster, who went on about how a Hall of Fame NFL star had “a bunch of zebra kids” running around his house. The implication, of course, was that there was something wrong with mixing the races.
And it’s not limited to one race, either.
I once interviewed a World War II vet, and when talking about the Japanese, he made a point to say, “But we don’t call them Japanese.” To him, the Japanese were always “gooks.”
You encounter little comments like that occasionally — and not just from old timers. Some of the comments are more subtle than others, but you know what they mean. And, as a reporter, there’s always a dilemma: Does this comment somehow play into the story?
Looking back, most people would have probable dismissed the vet’s comment as an old timer stuck on old ways. But years later, I still wonder if I did the right thing in ignoring the “zebra kids” comment from the sportscaster’s profile.
Then you wonder: If someone is willing to share that bias with a reporter they don’t even know, how can we expect those biases not to trickle down to hiring decisions or housing considerations? Yes, we’ve come a long ways, but also it wasn’t that long ago that we had state-sanctioned segregation.
I could go on about how it was a strong federal government that finally put an end to that embarassment — and that some seem more than willing to turn the clock back to 1950 – but I was hoping to keep this on the pop culture side. So here are my five favorite songs inspired by Martin Luther King Jr:
“Happy Birthday,” Stevie Wonder
Wonder recorded this for his 1980 album “Hotter Than July” as a way to lobby for a national holiday in King’s honor. A law honoring King was signed by Ronald Reagan in 1983, and it was first celebrated in 1986. Some states, though, continued to resist.
“By the Time I Get to Arizona,” Public Enemy
Arizona was one of the states that refused to recognize the new holiday, so Public Enemy wrote this about Gov. Evan Mecham and Sen. John McCain, who opposed the holiday. A few years later, McCain, under some pressure, later said his opposition was a mistake.
“If I Can Dream,” Elvis Presley
This was written for Elvis’s famed 1968 comeback special by the show’s musical director. The song was written as a response to the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy, both of which occured that same year.
“Why? (The King of Love is Dead,” Nina Simone
Simone’s bass player wrote this immediately after learning King had been assassinated. Simone performed it live for the first time three days later.
Bono wrote this after seeing a MLK exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum in 1983. The album this song appeared on, “The Unforgettable Fire,” also features “MLK,” a second song inspired by King.
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