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Martial Artists Making a Difference: Reflections on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Photograph of Dr. King Speaking
Photograph of Dr. King Speaking
Photograph from an original 35mm photograph taken by Paul Rest

On August 28th, 1963, I was preparing for my first year of college. The idea of going to Washington to march and be there for the March was beyond my thinking. I am sure there were some people who went from where I was living then, Evansville, Indiana.

Evansville was a strange city in many ways. It was on the southern most tip of Indiana. Right across the Ohio River was Kentucky. Southern Illinois was only a short drive to the west. The city had a sleepy Southern feel to it with clear social and racial lines that were then beginning to blur for the first time.

Besides one wealthy enclave on the west side of town where I lived, most of the “money” was on the east side of town. The west side was mostly blue collar. There was a “Lincoln High School” in the center of the city where the majority of the African-American student population attended.

However, when the Supreme Court ruled Brown v. Broad of Education, there was a much smoother integration in Evansville than in the cities in the South that were blazing across the headlines of world newspapers (think Birmingham, Alabama). There were African-Americans in my high school class and in the city’s other previously all white high schools. However, the majority of the population still lived in one area of the city, attended one high school, had one public swimming pool, and was confined to service oriented or menial jobs.

My family moved to Evansville from Hermann, Missouri four years before. Hermann was a town on the Missouri River that still had laws on the town’s books that said people of color could not be in the town before sunrise or after sunset. The small African-American population lived in a Shanti-town across the river with no running water or electricity. The women worked as maids and the men did odd jobs.

Somehow, I grew up understanding that there was no difference between a person of color and myself. Maybe this was from being adopted? I don’t know. So when the March on Washington happened on this date 50 years ago, I eagerly followed it. I don’t remember seeing it on television, but the medium was still pretty new, even then. (It wasn’t until a President died that November, that television became the focal point for the nation’s attention and mourning.)

When I did hear Dr. King speak five years later, a few scant months before he too would be shot and killed, again by the so-called “lone gunman,” his presence and the power of his words are with me still to this day. I don’t remember ever word he said on that cold January afternoon, also in Washington, DC, but his challenge was clear:

We must be willing to confront and see the injustices in society and confront these on every level, including within ourselves. Like an Old Testament prophet, he didn’t mince his words. He issued a clear challenge to act, act non-violently, and act now. Amen to that!

I think Dr. King and O Sensei would have seen that brightly burning divine spark in each other had they met. And isn’t this what we all want from each other? Regardless of our color, sexual orientation, nationality or really, anything else.

On this day fifty years ago when one man had a dream and shared it with a nation, and the world, let's all now re-dedicate ourselves to being martial artists making a difference!