When I was about eight or nine my school in Cambridge ‘twinned’ with one in Cambridge Maryland and my penfriend was a Barbara who was the same age as me. We kept writing for many years, but eventually our letters to each other stopped as so often happens with penfriends. I often thought of her over the years though, our friendship had a big impact on me. She was only a little girl but the awful things she described – people trying to stop her going to school, angry men shouting at her, difficulties in doing the ordinary things I did like going to the cinema… all because she was an African-American.
My parents were passionately anti-racist, even all those years ago, and the things we heard about happening to people of African heritage in the USA, and the way people of different ethnic groups were treated in South Africa under the apartheid regime appalled them. My grandparents had a pub in Cambridge, the Portland arms, and during the war American soldiers stationed nearby would come in. One day some African-Americans hesitantly entered and my grandmother smiled and said – as she would have said to any customer, ‘Good morning gentlemen, what can I get you to drink, sir?” They were amazed to be greeted and welcomed in this way and my grandfather refused to accept money because they were soldiers, fighting just as his own son (my dad) was fighting, in and for a foreign country. There were stories of fights in town during the war between the black and white American troops – the Cambridge lads always joined in too, on the side of the black soldiers!
So in the 1960’s Martin Luther King Jr was very much admired among me and my friends, and I often thought of my penfriend Barbara and that this man was such a hero in his actions in the Civil Rights Movement to end racial discrimination. I was shocked, appalled and devastated at the news of his assassination in 1968.
Martin Luther King was born on January 15th, but today, the 17th, as the third Monday in January is his observed birthday which has been a commemoration of him since 1983.