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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

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Compass by Al Campbell 1/11/2006

By Al Campbell

As the nation prepares to mark the birthday of Rev. King this coming Monday, it’s doubtful we will hear the above quotation, which I believe has as much, if not more value than his legendary “I have a dream…” utterance.
That’s because it speaks of facing reality, not shirking or making excuses for what one does to make a living. Dreaming is one thing, work days and paychecks, for whatever humble job, are real. They put food on the table, buy clothes for the children, put a roof over their heads and provide for an education.
Today’s modern workers thrive on exalted job titles. It’s a sobering thought being a streetsweeper. It’s something that chills down to the soul of today’s computer-age workforce. The idea of sweat-producing, physical labor with a humble broom out in the open is as foreign to many as learning Arabic or Japanese.
Where would we be if not for people who perform the most humble of tasks? It’s the physicians and surgeons in a hospital who win all the acclaim, not the lady who mops the floor and empties the trashcan. But without that housekeeper, life would be pretty seedy during a hospital stay.
School janitors are seldom pictured in yearbooks as winning the hearts and minds of graduating students, yet without their labor, often out of sight of students, administrators or teachers, classrooms and halls would be loathsome. Walls and windows would be grime coated. Bathrooms would be unthinkably filthy.
But does anyone give custodians a second thought? Only when their work’s done poorly or not at all, then criticism flies off the walls.
On his crusade for civil rights, especially through the South, King met many such humble folks. They formed a great mass behind him that swelled to change a nation’s attitudes.
I picture some of those street sweepers approaching King and spilling out their life’s problems. Surely, they were held in low esteem, ground down by years of hatred and racism. Their chances for a better life seemed as far as east is from west.
Yes, and I can also imagine their eyes brightening after they heard King make the quote at the top of this column. All of a sudden, they may have come to grips with life, and realized that they had value, that their work could mean something to society.
Ted Bryan, a history teacher at Middle Township High School spoke Dec. 30 about the late Rosa Parks during a Kwanzaa celebration in West Cape May, hosted by Cape Minority Advocates and The Mary Knight Scholarship Foundation.
He rehearsed what life had been like for blacks in the South during the late 1940s and 50s. In particular, he spoke of the segregated intracity buses and how blacks had to pay, then enter by the back door and find a seat in the rear of the bus.
There was a program on WHYY recently about life for blacks in Wilmington, Del. during the 1950s. It was difficult to imagine that, in the course of my lifetime, a telephone company had second thoughts of hiring black operators and others. Wilmington’s bus service felt threatened by having to hire black drivers, fearing it would have to fire white drivers.
Even department stores, which hired black clerks in Philadelphia, just 35 miles north, were reluctant to hire people of color in Wilmington.
Blacks could buy food at a Woolworth lunch counter…and eat it outside, but not at the counter with white patrons.
Such were the times when civil rights was a nasty term for some, and words of liberation for others.
We may beat our breasts thinking all is changed now, that all is right, but in my heart I know it isn’t. Yes, it’s far better than it was back then, but forms of racism remain in skeletal fashion here and there.
Everyone will deny it, of course, but it’s still there.
Some people who sweep streets have learned to overcome that bitter reality. Wise beyond their years, they realize that one person doing a job the best way possible, remains an enviable life.
Color is unimportant.

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