We said goodbye to the first lady of civil rights this week and, whatever your politics, it probably sparked some reflection. For me, as I listened to the eulogies — some so breathtakingly lovely, some so gratingly superficial — I wondered (to lift from Martin Luther King Jr. himself): Where do we go from here?
And I paused with gratitude to remember how his words and efforts so profoundly, albeit secretly, reached me as a child.
As a white kid growing up in the suburbs, I had an unexplained affinity for the grown-up speeches of Dr. King in the '60s. Few, if any, friends shared my interest in the freedom rides and marches and boycotts that characterized the struggle to end racial segregation. It would be decades before I realized what is so obvious to me now.
Sure, I was drawn to those events in part because it is my nature; but I was also drawn because I knew that I had a stake in what was going on. It would be a very long time before I would hear anyone talking about it directly, but it is now clear that what I heard was an echo of my shared sense of exclusion as a person with a disability.
The force of my personal exclusion was not as blatant as that experienced by the Kings and their peers. There were no signs barring me from drinking fountains or swimming pools — or even, miraculously for my era, from the neighborhood junior high and high school that I attended just two blocks away.
But there were many more subtle indications that I wasn't welcome at the metaphorical front of the bus.
First, there was the boy who, to my adolescent delight, reciprocated my infatuation. We hung out together at parties and dances and games and went to a few movies. Then he abruptly started avoiding me in the halls. Eventually, he sheepishly admitted to my best friend that his mother had ruled that he stop spending so much time with a girl like me.
Then there was the high school principal. More than once during the school year, he invited media to showcase me as his honor society/student council high-achieving kid who happened to be blind. But the very same man refused even to look at my summer job application.
There was the teen beauty pageant to which, much to my current chagrin, my father submitted my application and photo. Making the first cut, we showed up at the glitzy dinner in my new duds with my speech ready to roll, only for my father to be pulled aside and informed rather collegially that, certainly, he understood that, under the circumstances, now that the reason for the sunglasses was apparent, I could not be allowed to continue.
These were minor blips on my radar screen of a generally happy adolescence, but the sting of even one such incident makes its mark. It would be several years before I consciously recognized the connection between me, a white woman with a difference, and the struggle for equality by black Americans and other minorities.
Now, of course, I realize that all over America at the same time that I was more or less happily integrated in a wonderful school, experiencing occasional episodes of discrimination, other kids — kids who needed wheelchairs or crutches, kids whose intellectual disabilities made learning difficult — were often not allowed to go to school at all.
The disability rights movement has its own leaders and heroes, but it is important to recognize the linkage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, including Coretta Scott King, who continued Dr. King's work in her own way. She recognized the connection, too, writing in 2004, "The struggle against racial injustice must continue. But justice requires that we be equally vigilant in protesting against all forms of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination based on religion, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability and other kinds of injustice that degrade the quality of life for millions of citizens."
The foundation of words and laws is in place, but as we lose one more icon of a movement and an era, the challenge to maintain any kind of solid structure upon them — and that need to be vigilant —- is enormous.