When Ignorance Is Not Bliss
I went to see the movie Selma the first night it came out in my area. I was eager to learn more about Martin Luther King Jr.; a man I knew so little about and yet admired so much because of the few words I’ve heard that he spoke. The movie left me feeling ashamed, ignorant, and yet strangely hopeful. It also jogged a few memories and shed new light on them — the light of truth.
I grew up in Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s and 70s. My dad was fireman in our city, and he worked a few other part time jobs to support his wife and four children. We were rather poor. Initially we lived in a five family house in which each of the families had anywhere from one to four kids. The neighborhood was a mixture of all white second generation immigrants — the majority being Italian and Irish. My siblings and I walked to the public school we attended (initially all white), swam in the local community pool, and played in the streets of our all-white neighborhood. We really had no idea of the mounting civil rights issues of the times. That’s remarkable because we lived in a large city during monumental moments in the history of civil rights including the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the Newark riots (1967), the Fair Housing Act (1968), 1971 school desegregation through mandatory busing, and more.
Yet, I don’t recall being taught any of this in school. All I knew is what I heard from the kids around me: “They are going to be busing them into our schools, so we have to switch schools; the neighborhood is changing so we have to move,” etc. Forty some-odd years later I’m just now learning that it was all exceedingly biased and all too similar to the scenes in the movie Selma.
As I sat watching the silent marches in the movie Selma, a particular memory was sparked. One day while playing outside I observed what must have been thousands of African Americans marching silently up the avenue. The unified group spanned from one side of the avenue (east to west) and as far down the avenue as I could see (north to south). It was a powerful and unnerving sight, but I had no idea what was happening. The word on the street was, “They are claiming the neighborhood. We all have to move.” I am ashamed to say that this is what I thought and believed all of these years until I saw Selma. I don’t know the exact year, but I’m guessing I was about ten years-old — old enough to have been educated about civil rights, and yet I wasn’t.
While watching the film I cried at the injustice, smiled at the unity, marveled at bravery, and was angered by the ignorance — the ignorance of people who were uneducated, fearful (of what I’ll never know), and part of the problem instead of part of the solution. I’m disgusted with the officials in charge of the education system, the political leaders, scout leaders, Church leaders, and anyone else who should have known better and led children like myself towards truth, justice, peace, and solidarity.
When I left the theater I couldn’t help but wonder why Martin Luther King Jr. was not declared a saint. He was a faithful, peaceful, brilliant, zealous, compassionate, and dedicated man who devoted his all-too-short life seeking and working towards a peaceful resolution to a problem that was blatantly unjust. Meanwhile, saints have been canonized who fought for justice in far less dignified ways. Could the reason be because he was Christian and not Catholic? When will we learn? I’ll be praying to Saint Martin Luther King Jr., and I know he’ll hear me.
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