Martha Randolph Carr Martha Randolph Carr, 4/4/2011 [Archive]

Who We Were

Who We Were

By Martha Randolph Carr

The recent democratic uprisings calling for social change that have been a rolling wave of protests across the Middle East may seem like a reflection of our distant past from 1776 or perhaps even the Civil War but look again. The U.S. had a lurch in mid-step during 1968 that continues to affect everything.

The year started with a wave of optimism and promises of more basic civil rights for women and blacks that were already changing the way neighborhoods looked and corporations did business from the root level.

American society was shedding the culture that said everyone had to act or dress a certain way. Hippies were in and suits were out. Pollution was just a wrinkle of a worry, gas was cheap, AIDS was 20 years away and plastic was something that just made everything easier.

But things were starting to come undone and the first blow was in the spring of that year.

There have been other defining moments in American history despite our relative youth among industrialized nations. But this one was a turning point that was sharp and painful and stole from us, for just a moment the idea that we could still achieve great things as a nation without having to first pull each other apart. It happened on a motel balcony when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed 43 years ago on April 4th in Memphis, TN.

The news fell like a thud in the pit of our hearts in a year that had started out with such promise for social change and would wind down with the death of Robert Kennedy in June and a sprawling riot between police in riot gear and protesters at the Democratic convention during a hot Chicago summer.

I was just a 4th grader in Philadelphia but I could still feel the country unraveling at the seams. We already weren't as sure of ourselves in an era of Vietnam, civil rights and women's liberation and without the charismatic leaders who had promised to guide us through we weren't at all sure what the landscape would look like when the dust settled.

Many felt that there should be a tamping down of societal rights until we got our feet back under us. That should sound familiar and timely. But there was a mood in the country in 1968 that even pointless deaths or brutal beatings by police couldn't shift. It was as if we had all gotten a glimpse of what we might be and we were unwilling to go back no matter what the cost.

King was in Memphis in support of black sanitation workers who were on strike and were carrying hand-painted signs that read, I am a man. The term 'boy' was a casual slur used by some white Americans as a way of picking someone out of a group without having to acknowledge their humanity, much less get to know their name.

It was amazing that even as we crept up on 1970 American society still thought that using a pronoun of any kind as a means to get someone's attention was not only acceptable but in some instances, such as the color of someone's skin, preferable. There was even a certain amount of real danger for white people who were seen getting too familiar with a black man or woman.

However, for an American of color there was not only danger but a long, steady, weighty oppression that tried to infiltrate every characteristic of a life and ironically, it was happening in America where we pride ourselves on shaking loose of old labels to create our own destinies.

King, a charismatic black preacher from the South was peacefully showing us a new promised land. There's something to be lost for everyone when anyone's humanity is shortened due to prejudice, missed opportunities or injustice. We all lose out. Rev. King was putting out the call for everyone to look at themselves and decide what they could bring to the table to make this country a better place. First, we were to throw off the old definitions that had held us all back, individually and as a society.

To a nine year old girl with dreams of my own that spoke directly to my heart and opened up a wider picture for myself. When King was shot it seemed like the villains in the story might win the day and take away the chance to turn dreams of bigger possibilities into a reality.

Fortunately, we were too far down the road of social change and King's legacy rolls forward even now. This is what confounds and eludes terrorists. America is a great nation that continues to throw off old storylines that no longer work so that we can discover an even deeper, richer definition of freedom. Tweet me @MarthaRandolph to let me know what you think of how America has changed. Email Martha at

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