Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was thirty-nine years old when he was assassinated in 1968. In the intervening years, leaders have come and gone, but nobody has been able to match his combination of insight and oratory. In particular, his blending of Biblical verses with contemporary rhetoric gave life and depth to both. While many remember best his refrain, "I have a dream," I am most compelled by his use of the verse from Psalms, "How long, Lord? Not long."
Three days before Christmas, Ann, Jennie and I delivered the dozens of gifts Jennie had collected for families in a local low-income apartment complex. Our van was in the repair shop, so we borrowed one from the Labowitz-Rounsevell household. It was packed, top to bottom.
As we pulled into the parking lot on a very cold night, two cars pulled in behind us. In one car were two young African American men, and in the other, two young African American women. They parked a few spots away from us. A moment later, a squad car pulled into the lot, turned on its flashing lights and blocked the two cars. The officer began giving instructions to the drivers, politely, but firmly. He asked for license and registration, while insisting that everyone remain in their vehicles. He called for back-up. Another squad car and then an unmarked car arrived. The residents of the complex came and went, mildly curious.
Meanwhile, the three of us, conspicuously out of place, stood and watched as we waited for the office to be opened to receive the packages. I began to realize the situation I was in. I was standing fifty feet away from police officers with a car filled with a couple thousand dollars worth of unwrapped merchandise for which I had no receipts. The car was not mine, nor did I have registration papers (to my knowledge) with me. When the office was opened, we began carrying bags of small electronics, clothing, toys and other saleable goodies into a place not our own.
We were never challenged, nor even acknowledged, by the police officers.
I have no way of knowing what the people in the other cars had been up to that attracted the attention of the police. However, I am relatively certain that if a black man in a team jacket had been loitering in the parking lot of a predominantly white apartment complex when a squad car stopped in front of him, he would have had a conversation with the officer.
I fault no one and everyone. But if you think we have overcome the racism in our society because our schools are integrated and Dr. King’s birthday is a federal holiday, then you don’t get it.
How long, Lord? Too long.