While cleaning out file cabinets in the basement of my parents’ house, I found a book and letters that tell a story fitting for the Martin Luther King holiday.
The title of the book is, “How to Get Along With Black People,” with the subtitle, “A Handbook for White Folks* *And Some Black Folks Too!” written by Chris Clark and Sheila Rush. The book was published in 1971 and featured a forward by Bill Cosby—who at that time was a popular comedian.
I learned from reading handwritten correspondence tucked inside the book, that a relative had given the book to my dad after dad had expressed the desire to move past ingrained racial prejudice. To be clear: My dad wasn’t a white supremacist or someone who regularly railed against black people.
He was a product of his time and place: A male from a white lower-middle-class family. Segregation was being legally beaten down by the time my dad and mom had their sixth and final child, my younger brother, in 1961. But the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s through the 1960s surfaced fear and distrust in many communities across the nation—including West Rogers Park where my parents lived from 1966 to just a few short years ago.
My family used to enjoy African-American entertainers like Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr., but we didn’t have African-American friends or neighbors while I was growing up. It was like we could relax and enjoy their talent from a distance but wouldn’t make the effort to meet someone of color in real life.
Something happened to my dad at some point in his life that prompted him to reach out to a relative. The correspondence I found in the “How to Get Along” book didn’t include the original letter my dad had written, so I don’t know what happened. But the relative’s reply gave a hint. The relative expressed support for my dad’s desire to move past his fear of African-Americans. Dad evidently wanted to defeat some inner block that prevented him from being himself when interacting with someone who happened to be of color.
Our relative gave dad the “How to Get Along” book as a tool for dad to read as a beginning step toward reaching the point that King Jr. so eloquently described as
“I have a dream that my four 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.” — Martin Luther King, Jr. / “I Have A Dream” speech, August 28, 1963
And what about me, one of my father’s offspring?
In the private, Catholic high school I attended in downtown Chicago from 1972-76, about 10 percent of my class were of color. We talked inside and outside of class, and while participating in intramural and extracurricular sports. But I didn’t consider anyone of color to be a friend then. I continued to hang out with white classmates.
In college, I met people of color who became true friends and colleagues in journalism. I was more mature and could interact with them as the normal people that they were. To me, it was how the world was supposed to be.
Decades later, I look back at the legacy of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and see a world that is still divided, but that is better than the one my dad grew up in.
One small victory: I never had to hand my son and daughter a book explaining to them how to get along with their friends of color.