In anticipation of the Martin Luther King holiday, I wanted to show my daughters the St. Francis College Bulletin of 1976 that featured a photo of my mother studying with her friend, Joetta. The picture of her youthful, attentive face brought back my childhood emotions of love, pride, and some stress in having my mother start college after my little sister and I were well into elementary school. She managed to make us a hot dinner every night and was lucky if she got four hours of sleep, since her studying got serious after we went to bed.
When I found the photo I phoned my mom. “Was Joetta your best friend in college?” I asked. “She was my only friend,” she responded in a matter-of-fact way. “No one would be my friend and no one would be hers — we were both too dark and too different; so we had each other.”
This wasn’t the recollection I had at all. I couldn’t imagine my almost-regal mother shunned by classmates. In our home growing up, we always seemed to have people over, and particularly people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. My parents were active in the local Baha’i community, which was composed of a range of professors, businesspeople, tradesmen, artists, students, and flower children of the 70’s. It was distinguished for representing more ethnic backgrounds than folks thought existed in Fort Wayne, Indiana, those days, and particularly for the friendships that existed between races.
Almost as natural as learning to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ as children we were instilled with such ideas from Baha’i Scripture as: “Love ye all religions and all races with a love that is true and sincere and show that love through deeds.” And “The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.”
I grew up eavesdropping on adult conversations around the assertion that “racism is the most challenging issue confronting America;” we wore buttons on our coats with sayings like “One Planet, One People… Please” and “No Room in My Heart for Prejudice;” and up there among our all-time favorite heroes was, and is, Dr. Martin Luther King.
When the Iranian Revolution took place in 1979, followed quickly by the hostage-taking of Americans for 444 interminable days, I was an 8th-grade cheerleader in Fort Wayne, and stunned when people started calling me a terrorist and a “Sand N-word.” They didn’t know about the danger my family in Iran faced for being members of the Baha’i Faith, where my cousin in his 20’s was executed for possessing Baha’i books.
They also didn’t know that the principles our relatives, and many more individuals, to this day, clung to, embodied the words Dr. King lived and died by. Writing shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War , while exiled to Baghdad the mid-1800s, Baha’u’llah warned: “Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other…”
Though little known, the parallels between the message of that 19th Century Prophet who died as a prisoner in Palestine (today’s Israel), and the 20th Century’s Dr. King in America are striking. It’s the reason Baha’is in the U.S. mark “Race Unity Day“ on the second Sunday in June, why they served on the Commission that established the first federal Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and why so many of us would grow up with the blessing of having friends and family from every race.
Last year I returned to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to speak at the city’s International Women’s Day celebration, and the first person in the audience to raise her hand introduced herself as a friend from junior high: “I’m LaTonia. Remember how we called ourselves the ‘Mixed Veggies,’ because we united black and white kids after busing began? “
I was so touched that LaTonia shared our hopeful efforts, which reminded me that Dr. King’s dream can be embodied in our small steps: Invite people from diverse backgrounds to share a meal for ‘Sunday Supper,’ reach out to an old friend you used to study with, and pause to be of service, near or far. Together, with some courage, our positive actions can begin a healing process our world so urgently needs.