What Martin Luther King Jr. taught me

A snowy street, an encounter, a perspective changed.

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    Protest: A sanitation worker holds a replica of the placards used by strikers in Memphis, Tenn., in front of the former Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968.
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'I have a dream that my four little 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.

Living in an all-white farming community in the Midwest, I was far removed from the race riots of the larger cities. The destruction and killings stood in such contrast to the wisdom we heard in Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches. My family and I watched reports on the evening news and shuddered, thankful that we were safe from such hatred and violence. That changed somewhat when I began working at a bank in the larger community nearby. The branch, located in a poor neighborhood, stayed open late on Fridays and sometimes it was after dark when I drove home. A few months before, during the summer, police had quelled a few small riots in that area. My family nervously gave me advice on whom to avoid, what situations to stay away from, and how to defend myself.

Every fear they had voiced came together on a snowy evening when I worked late. It was an era long before cellphones and 911. I was not a phone call away from help; I was truly alone in a cranky car on snow-slick streets in the middle of a primarily black neighborhood far beyond my comfort zone. Last out of the parking lot, my old Ford LTD sputtered and coughed, then roared to life. I guided it out onto the deserted street and knew as long as I didn't need to stop, it would keep running. The battery needed replacing, but I'd been nursing it along until the next payday and then the next.

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Of course the traffic light turned red at the most desolate intersection on my trip. The nearby houses spoke of hardship, poverty, and need. And as expected, the car choked and died. It stayed silent even after the light turned green. I looked up from alternately praying over the ignition and cursing it, to see a pair of headlights. I smiled in relief. But when the car stopped and three young black men jumped out, I couldn't breathe, fear engulfed me. For a moment they reminded me of the angry figures I'd seen on the evening news.

The driver came to my window. Ignoring my mother's ghostly voice screaming in my ear, "Don't do it!" I rolled the window down. When he asked me if I needed a jump, I paused and said, "I have cables in the trunk."

And then I tentatively opened the door and stepped out to unlock the trunk. The fellows crowded around, grabbed the cables, and set to work. One maneuvered their old beat-up car to line up with mine while another stretched the cables from engine to engine. My nerves jumped with so much electricity I think I could have touched the battery and brought it to life. But they quickly completed that project.

I crept back behind the wheel and turned the key. The engine caught and ran beautifully. They grinned, slapped a few backs, and one returned the cables to the trunk. I reached for my purse and pulled out the few dollars squirreled away to last me until payday and offered it weakly saying something lame like, "It's all I have but its yours, I appreciate the help. Thank you."

He must have seen the fear still lingering in my eyes because he smiled – or smirked, I thought. He almost sounded like my mother when he admonished, "You shouldn't be out alone on these streets."

I swallowed. He grinned wider, seeming to be amused by my discomfort, and then waved his hand, "Nah, you keep it. Just glad to help."

My brother, my husband, my father, even I would say something like that. We were raised on the stories of the Good Samaritan and the "Do unto others" doctrines.

All of the way home I thought about that encounter. I didn't talk about it much, but realized at that moment that I would never look at anyone again and simply label them according to their skin color or ethnicity or wealth. I liked what I saw in that young man's eyes, even if he did take a bit of pleasure from my ignorance and fear.

Sometimes giving someone a helping hand is just that. But then sometimes it works like a key that clicks open a door to a whole new world of understanding.

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