The Bears' locker room last Sunday after their victory in Chicago, television cameras recording the scene for the millions watching around the nation:
An elderly woman embraces and kisses first one huge player and then another. It's a touching moment. The daughter of the Bears' late founder and owner George Halas emotionally expresses her affection and appreciation for two of America's most celebrated and admired football stars, Walter Payton and William (the Refrigerator) Perry.
Payton and Perry are black; the woman is white. So far as I know that scene draws not a single critical comment anywhere in the nation. A generation ago it would have provoked an outpouring of racial hatred. But then, a generation ago, such a scene would not have occurred.
Morning, millions of American homes:
The anchorman of NBC's top-rated "Today" show, Bryant Gumbel, interviews the host of America's most popular TV entertainment program, Bill Cosby. Both popular figures happen to be black -- a so-what fact, if anyone thinks about that fact at all.
Early afternoon, same week, the Great Rotunda, another ceremony in the most ceremonial city in the world:
Just inside the immense circular central hall beneath the Capitol dome, near the door leading to the East Front, a black cloth covers another bust about to be unveiled. All around it are symbols of the nation's past. Statuary and busts of Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and Lincoln encircle the hall. Grant, encased in white marble, stands solemnly in uniform. A bronze Jackson, astride a prancing horse, looks appropriately martial. On the walls above them are eight massive paintings of historic American scenes: Pilgrims landing, the Declaration of Independence's signing, Cornwallis surrendering . . . .
None of the paintings, none of the busts, none of the statuary, none of the sculptured reliefs or portraits carved in the sandstone panels there in the Capitol bears a single black face.
With the drawing of the black cloth from the new bust, while echoes of the Marine Band's playing of "This Is My Country" still reverberate in the rotunda, that racial composition of the pantheon of American heroes has been altered forever. And, so far as I can see, this fact stirs not the slightest degree of surprise or shock or anger or other critical emotion anywhere in America. It's simply another event.
It is the unremarkable nature of these things, the very ordinariness of them all, that is so extraordinary. Together, and culminating with the national holiday celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday tomorrow, they mark the last act of the civil rights movement that transformed this country.
I do not intend to suggest that the racial millennium has been reached or that racism, in one form or another, has been or ever will be extinguished in America. Nor do I ignore the new form of racial polarization that exists in America today, abetted by the policies and actions of the most anticivil-rights administration in this century. But I do insist that astonishing change has occurred, and all Americans everywhere are the beneficiaries of it.
Yet any contemplation of the meaning of this observance commemorating King's life is meaningless if it merely emphasizes the surface racial tranquility that exists today. The civil rights revolution that ended the officially sanctioned system of segregation of the races was not bloodless. It was achieved in the face of countless acts of violence and terror, and no American should forget that.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who often seems more concerned with advancing himself than a cause, did express something important about this. If King is portrayed only as a "nonthreatening dreamer," he said in Atlanta on King's actual birthday last Wednesday, his memory was being distorted.
Jackson is correct in that. And the history of that civil rights movement makes today's racial climate all the more dramatic, and the achievements all the more impressive.
Statistics tell only part of the story, but some of them are worth recalling.
In the 10 years from 1955 to 1965, more than 1,000 instances of racial violence, reprisal and intimidation were reported in the American South. In the same period, 225 bombings occurred, many of them of churches. More than 40 persons connected with the civil rights movement in the South were murdered. The gazetteer of trouble spots grew steadily: Birmingham, Ala., and Jacksonville, Fla.; Oxford, McComb and Philadelphia, Miss.; Bogalusa, La., and Albany, Ga. The Ku Klux Klan was reborn in the South and fiery crosses lighted the skies of countless communities. (A thousand flamed in one month alone in 1960.)
Hooded nightriders rode again, leaving terror and destruction in their wake. Floggings and brandings, castrations and other barbaric acts were employed as weapons of coercion. Law enforcement agencies and the bench were infiltrated by the Klan, often making it impossible to bring known offenders to justice. In some communities, the breakdown of law and order was total: the Klan provided the only effective force.
As the civil rights movement grew in size and strength, and as the new civil rights acts were placed on the national statute books, there was an increasingly violent reaction. Often the principal targets became white southerners themselves, those ministers, lawyers, editors, reporters, teachers and businessmen who were attempting to lead their region out of the past.
And still untouched then, and in many respects even more difficult of resolution, were the hypocritical racial attitudes and practices that formed de facto segregation in the American North. Yet in the end black and white Americans did act together. Segregation was ended.
The genius of Martin Luther King's leadership was that he did not approach our racial crisis only as a member of a black minority appealing to the white majority. He appealed to all Americans regardless of race or background. He sought change by reminding his fellow citizens of the principles of democracy. He simply asked them to be true to themselves and to the ideals he believed best represented their country. So they did.
His life was proof that in America one citizen can make a difference. Americans' response to him demonstrated that, for all its faults, democracy can work. Those are reasons enough to declare a holiday and celebrate.