By The Tower Editorial Board
The Tower (Grosse Pointe, Michigan)
Two-thousand seven hundred people packed into South’s gymnasium to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on March 14, 1968.
There are two Americas, King said in his speech. One is beautiful. It is the America found in the safe suburban streets, manicured parks and competitive schools of Grosse Pointe. Most children in this beautiful America have never understood what it means to fear neighbors, classmates, police officers.
It is a paradise where suburbanites can find the “milk of prosperity” and the “honey of equality” in gourmet grocery stores selling 20 different types of cheese.
However, as King said, there is the Other America. It is ugly and disturbing. It is a land of burned down buildings and burned out people. There are plenty of feral dogs in the streets, but there is no food on the table. This is the ugly America of injustice, of racist cops, of working three shifts back to back and still not making ends meet.
This is the America still found in places like Detroit, where in 2012, only 65 out of every 100 seniors left high school with a diploma in their hands, according to the Michigan Center for Educational Performance. This is the America where students graduate unable to read “A Tale of Two Cities,” a book the Grosse Pointe curriculum made an 8th grade Honors English text.
This is the Other America the beautiful America forgets exists.
Addressing a crowd still reeling from the violent 1967 Detroit riots, King offered a three-pronged solution. First, he said, realize that America is still a racist country.
Nearly five decades later, this still holds true, as is painfully evident not only in the Eric Garner case but also in the untold numbers of police brutality cases which fail to attract national attention. Like that of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old fatally shot by a Cleveland cop late last month. Or like that of Akai Gurley, who was leaving a public housing complex with his girlfriend when he was killed by a rookie New York Police Department officer, who had been walking down the dark stairwell, gun already drawn.
Second, King urged the audience to dispel the myth that time alone can solve racial injustice. He urged peaceful, positive protest, not only in his words at South but in his actions down South.
Inside the Grosse Pointe bubble, there is little adversity. This is exactly why so many parents, at great expense, move here. They want their children to grow up in a family-friendly environment with small-town values.
However, here there is also very little diversity. Even compared to similarly affluent cities like Farmington Hills and Ann Arbor, Grosse Pointe is largely homogenous. At South, our population does not come close to accurately reflecting the racial, religious and socioeconomic composition of America as a whole. While the 2010 census reported 72 percent of Americans are Caucasian, 93.2 percent of Grosse Pointers identified as white in the same survey.
Third, King argued that a “truly colorless society” is impossible without a collective change of heart, without exclusionary practices giving way to expansive, inclusive morals. This is not a transformation that happens overnight. It is the slow metamorphosis of the ugly America into the free butterfly of the beautiful America. It has been a 250-year-old healing process.
Grosse Pointers should not be ashamed that the majority of us are white and wear white collars. But, we must recognize that we belong to a club more exclusive than any on Lakeshore. We are members of the privileged America, the America only which a small minority ever experience, and with these advantages come the responsibilities of awareness, justice and peace.
We must remember King’s visit to South not because the speaker was famous and the crowds were record-breaking. We must keep King’s words close because they were as relevant 46 years ago as they are now. We must keep our eyes, minds and hearts open to Americas we may have never dreamed existed.
Photo Credit: Scott Ableman