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As I have grown older and witnessed the vast inequities in our world, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a hero of mine, the voice in my subconscious always urging love, tolerance, peace, nonviolence, and diversity. I have written before on the inspiration that Dr. King has given me in my personal life but today I write about the inspiration that I pray every day he will give to all corners of our society.

On the great day in which he delivered the famous “I Have A Dream” speech, he was speaking specifically on the topic of the racial crisis facing this country. But when Dr. King speaks of rights, promisory notes, and dreams of equality, he was not only talking about equality for black and white but also men and women, gay and straight, rich and poor, young and old, Christian and Muslim. His words painted a canvas of freedom and justice – and almost 50 years later, while we have made amazing progress, that painting is still unfinished.

I am always amazed when I hear Dr. King speak of his hope for a world where blacks and whites can eat together at the same table. Considering that I was married to a black man (and I’m so white, I’m neon), the world has come a long way! In Dr. King’s time, in some areas of the country, I would have been arrested (or worse!) for being with a black man – nowadays it’s not so uncommon and certainly not prosecutable. So many of my friends are of different colors, ethnicities, and backgrounds that it makes the violent and disciminatory realities of Dr. King’s world seem unbelievable. Our world is so much more diverse and tolerant than I’m sure anyone of that era could have ever imagined. And yet, even the most idealistic and naive amongst us can see that there is still progress to be made. There are still inequalities in this world to be solved, injustices to be made right, and discrimination to be overcome.

I, too, have a dream that someday this world will be full of people who treat each other with love, kindness, and fairness. I have a dream that someday physical attributes will not be the ruler by which people are measured – that someday, we will consider ‘pretty’ to be in someone’s soul. I have a dream that skin color, economic status, gender, religious belief or sexual orientation will not be factors in how we judge people – that we will love them regardless of these factors and be influenced only by ‘the contents of their characters’. Dr. King has taught me a lot about the kind of person I want to be and I am sure that I will continue to learn from his words and his actions.

So, I invite you all, on today of all days, to take some time out of your life to view the video of this great orator from August 28, 1963 – and maybe say a prayer for peace and equality and love in the world.

“I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little 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.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

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On August 28th, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered what would become one of America’s most iconic oratories. His “I Have A Dream” speech has been recited in schools and studied by scholars for the last 58 years. I have to wonder, if Dr. King were alive today, if he would truly believe the amazing progress we have made in the last 50 years!

I mean, just think about it – 90 years ago, women couldn’t vote! 60 years ago blacks and other minorities could not openly vote without fear of violent retaliation!  40 years ago, blacks and whites could not safely sit together in a restaurant, park, or other public place! My life alone is a testament to the progress we have made as a nation and as a human race. I am an independent woman who does not consider herself chattel. I vote in every election and have 2 college degrees. I was married to a black man and most definitely went out in public with him. My beloved godson is a mixed-race child and the light of my life. I have friends and neighbors of all races, creeds, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences. I am truly awed by the amazing work that the prior generations have done to give me the freedoms I enjoy today!

Dr. King, in his “I Have a Dream” speech (by far the most famous speech he ever gave), said this:

” l have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

I think that we, as Americans and citizens of the human race, should be very proud that portion of Dr. King’s dream has come true. The brave men and women of all colors and regions who stood up during the Civil Rights era and demanded equal treatment for all deserve much of the credit! Without those individuals and organizations that carried the banner, we might still be buried under the oppressive weight of prejudice, intolerance, and hatred.

Now, all of that being said, I do NOT believe that we live in an equal society yet. There is still a long road ahead of us before all groups, races, genders, and ethnicities have equal rights, equal protection, and equal treatment. But I have every faith that there are enough caring, idealistic, and fair-minded people in this world to continue the fight.

I want to leave you with two statements from that same speech from Dr. King, two sentiments that will hopefully spur you to think of the dreams yet to be realized:

‘I have a dream that my four little 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.”

“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring—when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children—black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics —will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

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One of my friends on Facebook recently posted one of those statuses that get passed around regularly and we all just kind of ignore. But, from my perspective, this one has some merit to it:

So let me get this straight … Larry King is getting his 8th divorce; Elizabeth Taylor is possibly getting married for a 9th time; Britney Spears had a 55-hour marriage; Jesse James and Tiger Woods, while married, were having sex with EVERYONE. Yet, the idea of same-sex marriage is going to destroy the institution of marriage??

I think this is a tremendously intelligent and important question to ask in our society at this point in time (those of you who live in Maryland know that our state legislature is about to vote on this issue). I have to admit that I do not understand what the big hoopla is about same-sex marriage. If you can find true love in this world, I don’t care if it’s male, female, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, yellow, green or purple. If you find someone who loves you for who you are and wants to share a life with you, you absolutely should have the right and the legal option available to do it!

I also firmly believe that gays should be allowed to be just as miserable as any married couple. Hey, if they want to deal with cranky spouses, married tax filing, and all of the insurance benefiary info, go right ahead. If they want to take the plunge, who are we to object? What does it hurt me, as a straight person, for a gay couple to be married?? Why should I object to the way someone else lives their life if it does not harm me in any way? I think people should worry about their OWN relationships before they start mandating or legislating others’.

On a deeper note, I think this issue goes straight to the heart of the American ideal of “equality for all.”  Why does it seem like every generation has a group of disenfranchised citizens that are being prevented from living happy, full lives? In our grandparents’ time it was women who couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, couldn’t work outside the homes. In our parents’ generations, it was blacks who had to wage serious battles to be able to vote, to eliminate violent racist acts, to be able to walk down a street safely. And in our generation, it will be the LGBT community that will have to fight for their rights, including the right to legally marry.  

Additionally, coming myself from a broken marriage, I can tell you that the biggest threat to the sanctity of marriage has NOTHING to do with the sexual orientation of the parties involved. Adultery and dishonesty, broken vows and disloyalty, easy divorce and ready temptation – those are the problems that we should be addressing as threats to happy marriage. I was a heterosexual female married to a heterosexual male in a traditional church-sanctioned marriage – and now I am divorcing, a sad tale of cheating spouses, failed relationships, and short marriages.

If we’re so worried about protecting the institution of marriage and making it a stronger, more lasting commitment, we as a society need to focus on our values and the morals that we teach our children instead of putting the misguided blame on innocent people. We need to teach our children about love, respect, commitment, honesty, loyalty and tolerance if we want to protect “marriage” for future generations. Let’s stop fighting battles to put people down and instead work together to make our kids WANT to stay married and faithful.

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Intolerance and prejudice is not inherently born. Watch a group of small children sometime – they do not discriminate based on skin color or ethnicity; they will play with anyone who is nice to them.

Public schools are therefore, I believe, the ideal environments for re-training children to be tolerant of other people. I feel sorry for home-schooled children, who have a limited exposure to people with other backgrounds, beliefs, or identities. Are we doing a disservice to today’s youths by not forcing them to see the world through others’ eyes? Public high schools put kids (at an age when they are most impressionable) in direct daily contact with people who come from different backgrounds. Maybe they speak a different language or eat different foods. Maybe they have less or more money. Maybe they go to a different church or have differently colored skin. Maybe they are of another sexual orientation or come from a blended family. Maybe they cope with a disability or have different political ideals. Whatever their differences, the pre-teenage and teenage years are the times to teach kids to accept and embrace the differences in all human beings.

Yes, I guess you could say I’m somewhat rabid about this subject – I am sick to death of the intolerance and prejudice I see in the world. I was raised to believe that all people are equal, regardless of race, class, religion, education level, gender, ethnicity, etc.. I married a man of a different race and social background than mine. I lived with two lesbians in college and stood up for them at their wedding. I have 6 wonderful godkids who are a mix of colors. I have friends in the fire department from all professional and socioeconomic walks of life. I am good ol’ redneck with 2 college degrees, able to rope a cow and write a thesis in equal measure. I firmly believe that diversity is what makes our experience on this planet such a special experience!

Imagine if you woke up every morning and could only wear white clothes, eat white bread, drive a white car that looked just like everyone else’s, went to work in a small white cubicle, and only saw 1 other person (who was also white) ever.

Imagine if you never saw a colorful painting or a dramatic sculpture, never got to eat different styles of food, never heard music, could never travel to anywhere but your house and your job. Imagine if you only knew people who agreed with you on EVERYTHING, from politics to movies, fashion to philosophy. Imagine if you couldn’t go to school and learn about other histories, cultures, or ideas. Imagine if you couldn’t go to church and study the Bible in the way YOU wanted. Imagine if you never heard a foreign language or saw a movie or read a book. Imagine if you only had friends that looked, sounded, and thought just like you. Imagine if your television only got 1 station showing 1 program.

We live in a diverse world, rich with colors, flavors, textures, sights, and sounds. I love the fact that I don’t live in an all-white world. I celebrate my friends and loved ones who lead different lives than mine. And I pray that someday the world will learn that tolerance and acceptance of others are the positive keys to a peaceful world!

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Now, when I say my husband was from a “whole different world,” I am not of course simply speaking of race. Yes, I am going to say right here and now that I feel that black people and white people are different. Beyond the purely biological differences we face (e.g. higher rates of sickle-cell anemia in black communities, cystic fibrosis in white, etc.), there are astounding cultural variances that define our experiences. I speak in generalities, of course. My husband, bless his heart, was frequently referred to as the “whitest black man ever” due to his alarming penchant for all-things Nascar and Budweiser. And, on the other side of that same coin, you’ve got gangsta rappers who are the palest white boys ever. I’m not saying that black and white are exclusive of one another – I am merely stating that the two communities are different.

No, when I speak of my husband as being from a “whole different world” from mine, I am mostly speaking of his culture and family background. When I met him, he still lived in the house he had grown up in. He had lived for a while on the “other side” (as the western shore of Maryland is known to native Eastern Shore residents) but had come back to take up residence on the family land when his dad passed. He had a HUGE family of cousins, aunts, uncles, and church friends, most of whom he had known for his entire life – but rarely saw. He didn’t want to attend family reunions or Sunday outings with his mother. He was content to live isolated and quiet. He had an inherent distrust of city people, cultivated over years as a career firefighter/paramedic for the Baltimore City Fire Department. He frequently made Haji jokes about people of Arab descent and the phrase “damn Mexicans” applied to any Latino he saw. He had never attended college, other than his paramedic and firefighter training, and would rarely be seen with a book unless he was studying for a promotions test. His idea of enjoying nature is to watch Ted Nugent’s hunting shows on the Outdoor Network. And his idea of a great movie involves lots of guns, blood, and bad guys with bad accents.

Myself, on the other hand, was as different as night from day. I came from a small family with only a few cousins – and we all faithfully and excitedly gather for every holiday and occasion, from weddings to Groundhog’s Day. I had chosen, though, to move 500 miles away from them in an attempt to define myself as a separate human being in those troublesome post-college years. I had two degrees in my hand and frequently read voluminous books “just for fun.” I love to go out and be with people and to talk. I love to travel and venture into new places and new communities to see what I can learn – especially in cities. I love to be outside in the open air, with a breeze blowing through the trees as I walk the dog or the snow falling quietly over me as I shovel.

So we were very different people from the start. Having nothing to do with skin color, although that would later play a major role in the story, my husband and I had vastly different approaches to the world. Add to that the fact that he was 14 years my senior and you will be able to deduce the many lessons I have learned in my marriage, about relationships, about men, and about our society’s approach to anyone that is “different.”

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I had the distinct pleasure of marrying a black man. To some this may fact may seem unimportant and unremarkable; to others it may seem like a highly racist statement. But to me, it is just a fact. And an important one at that, for it was this experience that has framed who I am today and who I hope to be tomorrow.

 I was raised in a home that didn’t see color or religion or ethnicity or gender or economic status. It wasn’t that I was specifically taught that all people were equal – it just was. There was no daily indoctrinations on the importance of equality and civil rights; my parents didn’t feel the need to make a big production out of it. They simply surrounded themselves with people from all walks of life and, should I have made an off-color remark or biased statement, I was politely but firmly set in my place. Admittedly, I grew up in a rural, mostly white, mostly middle-class area of western New York. Skin color had very few hues in that region and there was not the sort of abject poverty one sees in urban downtowns. But there was still a wide variety of people around me – from rich and snobby monied families to barely-getting-by farmer types, high-power commuting executives down to grocery store checkout clerks. And in terms of men and women? My father was a high school teacher and was home with me every day after school, while my mom was a businesswoman who was often away on business trips and would rush in the door at 6 pm or later. The gender stereotypes were just nonexistent in my house and, frankly, have taught me a lot about domesticity regardless of gender.

So, why, then is the fact that I married a black man of any note at all? Why, if I do not see distinctions in class, color, or gender, then is who I married of any interest? It’s because I was lucky enough to be able to cross a barrier, to realize what it means to be joined to someone different than yourself. I think all married people go through that to an extent – after all, to live with someone of a different background and perspective (be it economics, politics, gender-relations, familial alliances, etc.) takes a leap of faith into another’s life. But, when you enter into what society politely calls a “mixed” marriage, you are playing another game entirely.

What constitutes a “mixed” marriage, you may ask? In my case, it was mixed race. But I firmly believe that is any marriage in which two people marry despite the general consensus of their immediate society’s notion of “normal.” Sometimes the break from the norm is racial (a black and an Asian, for instance), sometimes its religious (a Methodist and a Jew), sometimes its ethnic (an Irish and an Italian) and sometimes it’s just economic (a rich woman and a poor man). Now, even, we can include age-related differences in our lexicon for non-standard marriages – anyone heard of a “cougar”?

It all really makes me wonder why these differences matter. I am at a distinct disadvantage in my upbringing, I suppose, in that I was not taught a prejudice or a bias towards any one specific group of people. So, by marrying a man from a whole different world and undoubtedly possessing a multitude of preconceived notions about a variety of groups, I was finally able to understand how it is that people develop prejudice and intolerance.

Stay tuned for Part 2…

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