So here's a fairly terrible story about my family.
My maternal grandparents were not what you'd call progressive people. My grandfather, particularly, tended to be quite conservative. They weren't blatantly racist and they weren't cruel, at least in any obvious sense -- they were old-school Presbyterian churchgoers and I'm sure they tried, in their way, to treat people with the kindness that Jesus preached. But they also definitely believed that black people had their place. (This was illustrated in the language my grandfather used in a cache of letters to my mother from the '60s and '70s -- I wrote about them years ago, though not that troubling language. My mom later destroyed the letters.)
I remember having a discussion with my grandmother in the '80s in which she made some mildly derogatory reference to black people, and I argued that blacks were equal to whites in every way. She turned to my mother and said, "He's been brainwashed too, hasn't he?"
To be fair, I think their views were fairly typical for older, middle-class whites -- even educated ones -- in mid-20th Century America. And amid the tumult of the '60s, neither of them viewed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a particularly positive light.
At some point in that decade, my grandfather was given an aluminum plate, a cheap commemorative souvenir, featuring a portrait of King. I don't know where he got it, but it was the kind of thing that might have been given away free at the supermarket or at a gas station or with a newspaper subscription. (I believe this was before King's assassination, but I'm not sure.) As a joke, he hung it in the basement, in a cold concrete corner furnished with a couple of old armchairs and the television. (Yes, to watch TV at their house you had to sit in the unfinished, unheated basement -- but that's another story.)
I can remember being a kid years later, in the '70s and '80s, and watching TV in that corner, with Dr. King gazing down on me.
Anyway, one day, a meter reader from a utility company -- a black man -- came to their house. He went down to the basement to check the meter (or the fuel oil level, or whatever he was there for) and when he came upstairs soon afterwards he was practically glowing. He shook my grandfather's hand and said, "You good people. You good people."
My grandfather was completely mystified until he later realized that the guy had seen the Dr. King commemorative plate -- the plate he'd hung in the basement as a joke.
I'd like to say that this was a transformational experience for my grandparents, but I'm not sure it was. The story became family folklore, and when I was old enough to understand it, I found it incredibly sad.
After my grandmother died in 1989, the plate went who-knows-where. It might have been sold with the house, or maybe some other relative has it now. I have no idea. But I got to thinking about it some time last year, and I went on eBay and found one that is virtually identical. (They're quite inexpensive, by the way -- again, I think tons of them were made.)
I bought it and hung it in our house, in a prominent place in the front hallway. Of course I don't pretend that this in any way makes up for the actions of my ancestors, who -- several generations before my grandparents' time -- fought for the Confederacy and even owned slaves. (I try to put my money where my mouth is by donating to charities fighting racism, like the Southern Poverty Law Center.) But I hope it helps demonstrate the arduous and slow changes in our still-racist society. I truly do believe we are gradually bending toward justice.
"Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools."
-- Martin Luther King, 1967
A plaque at Maygrove Peace Park, West Hampstead