Had the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. survived the struggles of the civil rights movement and gone on to lead a long, healthy life, he would be waking up this weekend to his 82nd birthday. Instead, we have a national holiday in his name, and we celebrate his memory.
Keeping that memory alive will always be important to me. It is important to me just as it ought to be to any other African-American — to any other American, period, really. But it is especially important to me because it takes me back to so many things I learned at the dinner table as a child.
Yes, we actually used to sit around the dinner table as a family — both parents and four children — and we would talk about the issues of the day. Imagine that. And it was nothing unusual for the topic of race relations to be a focal point.
To my parents, Martin Luther King was not some faraway figure on the page of a newspaper or the screen of a television. He was someone they had known. They had marched with him in the streets of Alabama when I was just a baby, and King had even baptized my two older brothers.
Most of what I have learned about the history of the civil rights movement has come from books and television. But the feelings of people who actually experienced the bus boycotts, the fire hoses being turned on them, the senseless beatings and killings – those are the intense feelings I picked up from my parents at a very young age.
Once I was old enough to understand, my mother would tell me: “It was a time of sacrifice. But sometimes if you want to make things better, you have to sacrifice first.”
Some of the sacrifices were unspeakable. One of my father’s closest friends was a man named Chris McNair. His little girl, Denise, was one of four children killed in a 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
Clearly, the concept of sacrifice for the betterment of others – for the betterment of our nation as a whole — is a pretty good place to start when celebrating the memory of Martin Luther King.
Another topic that needs to be at the forefront of any conversation related to King is the vital importance of education. King would undoubtedly be proud of the way some African-Americans have stressed school, but overall I’m afraid he’d be pretty disappointed.
Back in the 1960s blacks were hardly even allowed to participate in the political process, but they sure knew the issues of the day. Now we can vote all we want, but do we even have the education to understand the issues?
Our young people should not be offended by the idea of reading books. They should be reading all the books they can get their hands on. We simply must do a better job of educating ourselves.
Finally, if we are truly going to honor the memory of Martin Luther King, then we need to stress the importance of community service. We need to give of ourselves in order to address social ills such as hunger, poverty, and homelessness.
We need to come together — across all lines and divisions that too often keep us apart – and we need to embrace solutions that will bring broad benefits for all. That is why I’m so excited about a special program — in honor of Martin Luther King — that I will be part of this weekend.
It is called America’s Sunday Supper. The whole idea is to initiate conversation – thousands of conversations across the country, actually — focused on the most pressing social issues we face in our communities.
Appropriately enough, these conversations will take place right where so many meaningful conversations used to take place: around the dinner tables of America.
On the eve of Martin Luther King Day, I’ll be joining hundreds of people for supper and conversation at The Newseum in Washington, D.C. Thanks to the efforts of an organization called HandsOn Network, more than a thousand volunteers will lead similar thought-provoking and action-inspiring meals across the nation.
For more information — and for a live webcast of the event at The Newseum — go to www.HandsOnNetwork.org.
Sometimes I wonder how Martin Luther King would feel about where we have come as a nation. Sunday night will certainly be one of those times when I can’t help but think about that.
Olympic champion Carl Lewis, winner of nine gold medals, is the most decorated track-and-field athlete in the history of our nation.