JFK and MLK

Today, I had lunch with Gerard, a new friend I’ve gotten to know through church.

We met at Fox and Hound at North Hills. Like many restaurants today, it’s walls are lined with flat-screens. I arrived first and enjoyed a few surprise minutes of the NHL Network. (Not many Raleigh restaurants keep a TV tuned into the NHL network. It was a treat!)

In walked Gerard. On Sundays, he always wears a suit-and-tie because he heads straight to work afterwards to a furniture store here in Raleigh. Seeing him in “civilian clothes” always catches me off guard. Shortly after Gerard sat down, one of the large screens started showing footage from fifty years ago in Dallas, TX. The assasination of John F. Kennedy.

“How old are you, Gerard?”, I asked him.

“Fifty-seven.”

“So you were seven years old when that happened. You probably have memories of that day.”

“Oh yes.”

jfk and mlkAnd he proceeded to tell me his memories. It happened during school, in the afternoon. All the kids and teachers were dismissed. Everyone was crying. For the next several days, it was as though life was still happening, but nobody was really present. Everyone was one or two degrees removed from reality … in a fog or haze of some kind. Vacant.

“I also remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was assasinated.”

I don’t have a ton of black friends, but Gerard is one of them. “Forgive my ignorance, I’m Canadian.” (I start a lot of conversations like this!) “Did you grow up here in North Carolina?”

“Yes. Johnston County.”

“Was your school experience segregated?”

“Oh yes. It definitely was.”

I’ve read books and watched movies that talked about the racial tensions and civil rights movements of the late 50s and 60s, but sitting across the table from someone who lived through it … wow.

He told me how the one main restaurant in town forced black patrons to use the back door, and wouldn’t allow them to sit and eat, only to order take-out. A large billboard sat just outside town with a painting of a Grand Dragon of the KKK sitting on a horse above the words “Smithfield, NC. This is Ku Klux Klan Country.”

Gerard’s older sister was one of 5 black students selected to be part of an early desegregation experiment at one local white school. It was incredibly hard on the family. Especially her. They received frequent threats from the KKK with promises to burn crosses on their front lawn. Thanks be to God, none of those threats were ever carried out. She stayed enrolled. Desegregation began in earnest the following year.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Our lunch conversation reminded me a Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) reading I had recently read (I’ll be sharing the full reading this Sunday). The last lines say this:

There are days when we act as if we cared nothing for the rights of others. On the Sabbath we are reminded that justice is our duty, and a better world, our goal.

Therefore we welcome Shabbat. Day of rest, day of wonder, day of peace.

I’m glad that our world has changed a lot in the last 50 years. A lot! But there is still injustice. There are still people without a voice who need an advocate. There are still dark corners that need light. Justice is still our duty, and a better world, still our goal.

Thank you, Gerard, for sharing your life and your story with me.

Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, set up your Kingdom in our midst. Amen.

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