Well, We Still Don't Quite Measure Up

Dear Dr. King:

A belated happy birthday. We miss you down here. We could use you right about now, to help us straighten a few things out.

The world you left behind, the world that we inhabit, is still not a perfect place. People say things and do things that make us shake our heads in sorrow. The ones who should speak out against injustice stay quiet. The ones who should shut up are the ones who shoot off their mouths.

You understand what we mean. You have been to the mountaintop. You always had the best view.

From where you look down upon us now, you might not like what you see. You might be wondering what it is going to take for the men and women below to link arms and slap palms and stop lashing out at one another.

It has not been a very good year. In America's largest city, red blood is boiling over black-vs.-white incidents on a subway car and in a place called Howard Beach. In Chicago, black and white politicians continue feuding.

In Houston one night, a baseball executive expressed the opinion that human beings not of his pigmentation might not make good executives. In Washington, a gambler turned television commentator connected athletic superiority with 19th Century slave breeding, and speculated, sincerely or otherwise, that if blacks started taking over coaching jobs in the game of football, whites might soon become extinct.

In Boston after a basketball game, a couple of black players theorized that an oft-honored white athlete would not be so often honored were his flesh a darker color. In a dispute between football labor and management, the representative of the players' union claimed he was being treated differently because he was black.

And, in the capital city of Arizona, the paleface governor refused to recognize your birthday, Dr. King, as a national holiday, even though the rest of the States happen to be United on this matter.

As a leader of men and as a man of faith, you undoubtedly could find forgiveness in your heart for these misguided souls. We can only pray that the good example you set has not been lost on the generations that have succeeded you.

This should have been a year of inspiration to anyone of any race, but particularly to black Americans everywhere. A black politician is an acknowledged and fully funded candidate for President of the United States. A black movie star is the box office's undisputed champion. Another black actor has the most successful show on television.

A football player, Doug Williams, is about to become the first black quarterback to start a Super Bowl. A figure skater, Debi Thomas, may soon win an Olympic gold medal. A goaltender, Grant Fuhr, saved the final game for hockey's Stanley Cup champions. A tennis player, Lori McNeil, made her presence felt at the U.S. Open.

If the country did not exactly have a rainbow coalition, it at least was beginning to nicely mix its colors.

Anybody could be anything he or she wanted to be. We went to college football's biggest bowl games and some of the best quarterbacks--Oklahoma's, Nebraska's, Syracuse's, USC's--were black guys. We went to professional basketball's toughest playoff games and noticed that some of the best players--Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Bill Laimbeer--were white guys.

The sociology of sports seemed to be in pretty decent shape. Progress was being made. Everything and everybody looked cool. We fooled ourselves into thinking that athletics was one place where ebony and ivory appeared to be living in perfect harmony.

Then, we found out different. We registered attitudes and platitudes and could hardly believe what we were seeing and hearing. We discovered that experienced sport observers were not as color blind as we pictured them to be.

We met golfers who were willing to play their lies in South Africa while ignoring the lies of the government leaders. Offer enough money and principles suddenly mean very little. Even Larry Holmes, literally a champion among black people, admitted recently that he was sorely tempted to wage a prize fight in South Africa for the right wages.

We listened with astonishment to a couple of elderly Greeks attempt to discourse on the physiology of the adult Afro-American, as to why they cannot swim, or why their thighs are so large. We also were reminded that we must, at all times, watch every word we say, as when Howard Cosell innocently likened a little athlete to a monkey, and was castigated as if he had just placed upon his toupee a white pointed hood.

On a network TV talk show Tuesday, several sportswriters got into a discussion of the Super Bowl quarterbacks, John Elway and Doug Williams, and with a laugh, one of them followed his praise of Elway with the throwaway joke: "And he's got the biggest teeth I've ever seen." It was funny, and not inaccurate. Yet, imagine the reaction if the same man had made a similar remark with regard to any prominent feature of the Washington quarterback.

We know not what to do, Dr. King, because we cannot read men's minds, cannot be sure what they were thinking, and we do not wish to offend or condescend. This guy Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, the one who spoke so injudiciously the other day, we heard what he said and we wanted the dunderhead fired. We whites who shared sentiments with blacks over this issue believed we were doing the right thing.

Then, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stepped forward and said we should not overreact to what happened, and Bill Cosby said much the same thing, and even the black broadcaster who did the interview with "the Greek" in the first place said he did not feel the man deserved to lose his job over it. And we went away wondering: Did we react to what Snyder did with a free-thinking mind, or as a liberal white with a bleeding heart?

The other day, Dr. King, we were watching a professional basketball game, and admiring the color-free camaraderie out there on the court, when a mild scuffle between two players interrupted the game.

For some reason, it occurred to us that the most memorable incidents of violence in the league's last decade or so--between Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kent Benson, Robert Parish and Bill Laimbeer, Tree Rollins and Danny Ainge, Ralph Sampson and Jerry Sichting--pitted a black man against a white man, and we wondered, we hoped, we were even fairly certain, that this was nothing more than a coincidence.

We are trying to get along down here, Dr. King, and doing the best we can. We can do better. With any luck, as time goes by, we will do better. Keep the faith.

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