The orange of their jail jumpsuits was about all they had in common.
It meant they were both in trouble, but the crimes that brought them together last Thursday aren’t important here.
The color of their skin is: One is white, the other black.
I’m not sure what sparked the ugly exchange I witnessed in a county courtroom that day. It’s human to get angry, but what was said was dehumanizing. The white man let loose the N-word several times. Deputies stepped in, but the damage was done.
The black man looked skyward, then shook his head softly. I imagined he was wondering “how bad can this get?”
Things seemed beyond bad when I was 4 years old. I was aware of a great man named Martin Luther King Jr. When I was a newborn, he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. I had a daydream, at age 4, that the civil rights marches I saw on TV were spilling down my suburban street. It scared me.
Fear — of change and of the unknown — was a factor among my family and friends. I was raised to respect all people, but our car doors quickly locked when we drove through some parts of town.
I didn’t know any African-American people until I went to high school and got a job in the city. Many became my friends.
Still, nothing prepared me for the fear I felt when I was a college reporter covering a racial controversy in Columbia, Mo. A day-care center worker, who was black, was fired by her white supervisor. She filed a racial discrimination grievance.
One night, dozens of people gathered at a community center for an impromptu meeting about this. I hustled over to cover it. The crowded room was dimly lit, and angry voices were rising. I found the woman’s boyfriend. We had been friendly, but now he was enraged. I asked him to explain the soaring tensions.
“Why should I talk to you?” he said. “You won’t understand. You’re white.”
I suddenly realized I was a minority of one and had no clue how to respond.
“Consider me gray,” I said, “and keep talking.”
It’s my role as a journalist to remain gray, or unbiased. Last Thursday, that stifled my instinct to offer the black inmate an apology that wasn’t mine to make.
It’s our role as a humans, however, not only to respect other people but to show that in our words and actions. That white inmate’s hands and feet were shackled, but no one could control his mouth or words. Little I could say or do will change him.
My hope is found in the words of MLK, who said on that hot August day in 1963, “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.”
This challenges all of us to consider our own character and that of the kids we’re raising. It begins with how we treat others on the playground in good times, in the grocery store every day, and even during tense situations at the courthouse.
It also stretches into our private moments, things shouted from behind tinted windshields and posted to strangers on social media.
I don’t want a grayer society, just a kinder one. That’s what King tried to instill in his kids and me in mine. He said, simply and eloquently, words that all parents and people can live by: “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
That time is now.
King died for his beliefs 50 years ago today, but his spirit lives on. We still witness racism and hatred, but he challenges us anew in these divided days. I’ll give him the last word here:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”