Kent Bernhardt: The fight for equality hit home one foggy morning in 1968

  • Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:01 a.m.

“Red and yellow, black and white…

They are precious in His sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

I must’ve sung that song a thousand times before I was seven; the simple message that God loves us no matter what color we are.

And it was true, they told me in Sunday school in the early 60s. I had no reason to doubt it, even though my world was undeniably white at the time.

In my small southern community, everyone looked just like me. I only saw “other colors” when I visited the city, where there was a blend of skin tones.

I can honestly tell you that I was taught to regard people of other races with the same amount of respect and consideration that I would show any friend. “Good and bad comes in all colors,” I was told.

But it didn’t take a lot of growing up before I realized some of my friends hadn’t gotten that memo. “We’re equal,” some told me. “They just need to stay where they are and we just need to stay where we are. It just works better that way.”

As my black and white TV screen filled with images of burning buses and battles between blacks and whites in cities far away, my young mind struggled to comprehend it all.

A Life magazine arrived at our home one Friday with images of a race riot in a northern city. One particular photograph caught my eye. In it, a young black boy lay dying in a pool of his own blood.

“Red and yellow, black and white….they are precious….” The song went round and round in my head. Why is this happening?

If we are all precious in His sight, why is this happening? Why does the simple color of a person’s skin – something none of us choose – make so much difference?

In the late summer of 1967, my world began to change. The student population at the junior high school I would attend, though predominantly white, also contained black students from a nearby community.

One of them, a soft spoken young man named David, was in my language arts and band classes. In fact, his was the only dark face in those classes.

David was the embodiment of the word “mellow.” His eyes had a constant sleepy look, and his face rarely changed expression. When he spoke, his words were soft and measured. “Hey,” he said to me on the first day of class. “Hey,” I said back.

I had my first black friend.

I often wondered what it was like to be the only darker face in that sea of white, but I never asked David about it. We were friends. What else really mattered?

April 5, 1968 should’ve been just another Friday in the early spring. But it was much different. The night before, a bullet had taken the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.

That morning, I arrived in class early to find David standing at a classroom window, gazing out into the morning fog.

“Look at David over there”, someone said. “Some guy shot his man last night.”

His man. Those words still ring through my head. How callous.

I watched David from my desk. He said nothing. I said nothing. After a while, he quietly took his seat and the day began.

I won’t tell you I understood what David was feeling at that moment. I don’t think I possibly could. Was he just trying to make sense of it all? Was he watching a last hope vanish into the morning fog? I don’t know.

The world was a much different place back then. We were just beginning to connect.

I will tell you that my greater understanding of the fight for true equality began that day. Though David’s calm demeanor never wavered, I saw a pain in his eyes that morning that I have not forgotten.

David and I were classmates for six years. We took many a trip together on a rickety old high school band bus, and shared a few classes along the way. I regret that I simply lost track of him after high school.

He doesn’t know it, but he taught me something on that foggy, spring morning in 1968.

Using no words, he began my journey to empathy, and a greater understanding of a human struggle I hadn’t been able to comprehend.

And it all started with a simple “Hey.”

“Red and yellow, black and white.

They are precious in His sight….”

Kent Bernhardt lives in Salisbury.

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