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Humbled by King's example

01/16/03 12:00AM By Joe Deffner
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(Host) Commentator and teacher Joe Deffner reflects on Martin Luther King Day.

(Deffner) A couple of years ago, when I was asked if I would speak at the annual Martin Luther King all-school assembly, I hesitated. I was worried that I didn't know enough about Dr. King or that I could possibly offer anything worthwhile to a gymnasium full of people, white like me. Still, I was flattered to be asked. I let myself be talked into it. Here's some of what I said.

I grew up in a very white neighborhood. I didn't know any people of color until I started ninth grade at a Catholic high school in downtown Pittsburgh. Even then, there were always more of us than them. I was never threatened, insulted, or discriminated against. And in that sense, I can never know what Dr. King and others in the civil rights movement went through on a daily basis.

He stood up for what was right and decent and he paid the ultimate price on that spring morning on a hotel balcony in Memphis, his life prematurely ended by an assassin's bullet.

But as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small village in east Africa, I had the good fortune to learn firsthand what it's like to be in a minority. I was the only white person for hundreds of miles. I call it good fortune because I was reminded of my skin color everyday, something I had never given much thought to. So in Kenya, when I had a bad experience surrounding the issue of race, I would think of Dr. King and feel humbled.

In the face of water cannons, policemen wielding billy clubs, and violent white supremacists, civil rights leaders kept up the struggle. Not only did Dr. King suffer these affronts without lashing out at his persecutors, he was a shining example of just how much non-violent confrontation can accomplish. Brick by brick, the wall of segregation was torn down.

You and I both know, however, that in the area of civil rights, we still have a long way to go. Unfortunately, race still matters. As we commemorate Dr. King's birthday, we might all pause and remember that what is really fundamental, is who you are and not what you look like, how you dress, or who you know. If we can get past such surface appraisals, we'll have come a long way towards realizing the dream Dr. King had for his four children, of being judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

This is Joe Deffner from Union Village.

Joe Deffner is a teacher at Thetford Academy.
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