January 13, 2007
"I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." (Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 1963).
It was fall of 1966. We were beginning our junior year at Pearl-McLaurin High School just east of Jackson, Miss. Among the events of the new school year came the fact that our school was to be integrated.
All went well as the handful of new students became part of our student body. Only one of the new students was part of the junior class — Cheryl D.
Cheryl was quite an impressive young lady. She was intelligent, very polite and well mannered and a person who conducted herself with poise and dignity. Cheryl and I were in several classes together. I learned to have a high respect for her because of the quality of her character.
I had always believed in equality for all races. The positive impression that Cheryl made on my life strengthened that belief. As I look back, I also admire her for her courage. It took a great amount of courage to be one of the first to challenge the years of segregation that had been a fact of our past.
The next year more new students came and most were good young people. But one new girl, whose name I don t remember, carried a chip on her shoulder and often tried to pick fights with other students. Though there were no major "incidents" at PMHS, I do remember witnessing some ugly scenes around the lockers as students had tried not to react to this new student’s hostility. She certainly did not make a good impression.
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What was the difference between the positive attitude of students toward Cheryl and the negative attitude that developed toward this student? It certainly had nothing to do with skin color, for their skin color was the same. It had everything to do with the "content of their character."
In the past 40-plus years since these events, much has changed. Full integration and racial inclusion are a reality in most of American life. I have many black friends with whom I fellowship at work, at church, at meals together and in daily activities. Like all my friends, we are welcomed in each other’s homes and we often plan activities together.
My choice of friends has nothing to do with skin color, but it has much to do with individual character.
Though Martin Luther King’s dream has not come true for everyone, everywhere, it has certainly come true for millions of Americans. Yes, there are still bigots with which to contend. All the laws in the world cannot change every human heart. But, as MLK dreamed, most people today are "not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."