This unsung humanitarian offered, “I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me. All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
The words didn’t come from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the much-admired and equally maligned Civil Rights Movement leader who aroused the nation on Aug. 28, 1963, with his now legendary “I Have a Dream” address to 250,000 followers who crowded the front campus of the Lincoln Memorial.
No, these heartfelt words came from the unflappable Jackie Robinson, the first African-American athlete to play in Major League Baseball’s modern era. Number 42 played first base for the old Brooklyn Dodgers where he debuted April 15, 1947.
Both Dr. King and No. 42 sought only equality, opportunity and respect. They asked for nothing more than any man or woman — white, black or other — rightfully deserved as American citizens.
And in time, they earned it. But it wasn’t easy. Sometimes it was downright ugly. But perseverance and belief that people’s hearts could change kept their hope, and their faith, alive.
Through their gains, America evolved. It is still not a perfect America, and this nation still has much to learn about how to treat others. But progress is being made — one step at a time, whether it comes in the form of a march on the nation’s capital half a century ago or the election of America’s first black president 45 years later.
Both Dr. King and Jackie wanted better times for all. Frankly, their sacrifices have made me wonder of late what would have happened on a rainy winter evening in middle Florida had we lived in a more tolerant America where people are quicker to care than to condemn.
We’ll never really know, but just suppose ...
The rhythmic right-to-left slide of the pickup’s windshield wipers brought little clarity to the driver’s view as he scanned the yards of his neighborhood while running a quick errand. It was a lousy night to be out, even for Feb. 26, 2012. Florida’s winters were routinely mild in temperature, but when the rains came they sometimes fell with a vengeance.
In no rush to complete his chore, and cognizant of his new role as neighborhood watch coordinator, the man watched the street corners as he passed slowly through each junction. He eyed all movement and held tight to his vigil of front lawns, back yards, alleys and side streets, low windows and rear doors.
All too aware of the community’s rising crime over the last couple of years, it was why he and neighbors formed the watch program in partnership with the city’s police department. In the truck’s dark interior, he casually slid one hand to his hip. Satisfied that his firearm was there, he turned right and then made a left three blocks later.
Continuing his patrol, he glanced in one direction, then another and quickly peered to his right again. Lost in the shadows of the night and the pouring rain was a silhouette. From a distance he could barely make it out, but the figure looked to be male; at least, his posture and stride gave the appearance.
The man’s head was covered by a dark hoodie, making positive identification almost impossible. Reaching for his cellphone, the driver considered making the call. He had done it before, and from his perspective, with good reason. He was protecting his neighborhood. The police were generally responsive to neighborhood watch volunteers, but they were also quick to urge restraint when there was doubt.
The cloaked figure carried a plastic bag that could have held anything from a handgun and ammo to household toiletries. The driver thought he caught a glimpse of the hooded man looking into windows of houses, but he could not be certain. If so, this would fit the pattern of would-be burglars and vandals over the past few months. Too much crime around here, and the bad guys always got away, he muttered to himself.
Still not convinced of the unidentified man’s intent, the driver pulled up alongside the curb and pushed the remote button to lower the passenger window. The hooded figure turned in his direction.
“You got a problem with me, homie?” the silhouette shouted through the steady rain.
“No problem from me,” the driver replied, raising his voice slightly to be heard. “But it looks like you’ve got a problem ... too much rain and too little roof.”
“It ain’t none’a your concern,” the figure responded. “I’m makin’ it. Just head on ... wherever it is you’re headed. And we won’t have no problem.”
The pickup driver paused, squinting to make out the face.
“You live around here?” he asked.
“No,” the walker answered. “Just visitin’ some folks.”
“Well, looks like we’re headed in the same direction. Come on. I’ll give you a ride.”
The figure stopped. “You gonna give me a ride? Man, how do I know you ain’t some kind’a freak.”
The driver chuckled.
“I’m not,” he said. “I live around here and I’m part of neighborhood watch.”
“So you’re watchin’ me?” the figure demanded.
“All I see is a fella getting soaked,” the driver said. “Besides, if you’re just visiting, it’s a way of saying welcome to the neighborhood.”
The figure grew even more suspicious, but no more so than the driver. Stepping forward to the passenger door, the hooded man, his clothes dripping, offered only, “Awright.” Reaching for the door handle, he climbed into the truck’s passenger side.
Each got his first good look at the other.
“Where you headed?” the driver asked.
“Down a few more blocks and then right,” the figure said. “I don’t remember the street name, but I know the intersection.”
“You ain’t got a car?” the driver asked.
“Mistuh, if I had a car I wouldn’t be walkin’ in this kind’a weather,” the passenger answered.
The driver chuckled nervously. “No. No, I guess you wouldn’t be.”
The hooded man pushed back his cover, revealing his full face. “Man, I’m gettin’ your truck wet,” he said.
“It’ll dry,” the driver assured.
“Why you packin’?” the figure asked, motioning to the driver’s handgun in the holster. “That part of your neighborhood watch?”
“Yeah,” the driver answered. “It is. It’s legal. But I stay in touch with the local police if I see anything suspicious.”
“Like me?” the young rider sought.
“Like anybody,” the driver retorted.
“What’s in the bag?” the driver asked, breaking the uncomfortable quiet.
The passenger looked in his direction. “Candy and a drank ... if it’s any of your bizness,” he answered.
“You’re right, it’s not,” the driver conceded. “It’s just ... well, I’m — ”
“ — Neighborhood watch,” the younger man finished his sentence with a smirk. “Turn here.”
The pickup swung to the right and the driver counted the townhomes they passed. “Just tell me when,” the driver said.
“Two more doors down ... that one,” the figure said with a point of his finger.
“Who you visiting?” the watchman asked.
The younger man, more of a grown boy, laughed, “Man, you gotta know ever’thing, don’t you?”
The driver also laughed.
“Like I said — ”
“ — Neighborhood watch,” the rider confirmed again.
The driver pulled to the curb and stopped in front of the townhouse. The wipers still pushed away the steady tears of the wet Florida night.
“It’s my father’s fiancee,” the passenger explained. “She lives here. We’re just stayin’ with her for a few days.”
“You in school around here?” the driver asked.
More questions, the young man mumbled with a shake of his head.
“I’m finishing a high school suspension man, OK?” the passenger said. “It’s a long story.”
“Well, whatever you done to get suspended, learn something from it ... so it don’t happen again,” the watchman offered, but not unkindly. “I don’t mean to stick my nose in nothin’. Your life is your life. Mine’s mine. But I’ve had some run-ins with the wrong folks, too. I’ve paid a price, and I’m still payin’.”
“So you’ve done some things yourself ... things you’d take back, if you could?” the youngster asked.
“Sure I have,” the driver said. “Who ain’t?”
Staring through the windshield into the night, the teenager reached for his sopping hood, again cloaking his features.
“Look man, I appreciate the ride,” the passenger said, still looking ahead. “I’m not much on taking lectures ... I’m just tryin’ to cope, with a lot of stuff ... stuff that me and you, we ain’t gonna talk about.”
“Fair enough,” the driver agreed.
He reached out his hand. The passenger flinched before realizing the driver’s intent.
“My name’s George,” he offered. “I’m just tryin’ to help. This is what we’re all about.”
“We?” the boy asked. “... As in neighborhood watch?”
The driver laughed, “Yeah, that’s us.”
The passenger, slowly and deliberately, shook the driver’s hand.
“... Name’s Trayvon,” the youth offered.
“Nice to meet you, Trayvon,” the driver said.
“Yeah man, same here,” the younger man returned. “Maybe when I get me some wheels I can return the favor. But I ain’t over this way much.”
Climbing out of the pickup, the passenger pointed to the driver’s gun and asked, “You ever used that thing?”
The driver hesitated before answering, “Nah. I ain’t had to.”
“And what if one day you find yourself havin’ to?” the boy asked.
“... I don’t know. I hope I don’t,” the driver replied.
“If you’re gonna wear it, you better think about it,” the boy cautioned. “Thanks for the ride, man. Good luck with the neighborhood watch.”
The driver’s eyes followed his passenger as the hooded youngster melted into the rainy night before reappearing at the front door of his dad’s fiancee.
Four days and 50 years after America’s rebirth, times are getting better. But times are not yet at their best. Our people still struggle to do the right thing.
It isn’t a matter of white and black and brown and red and yellow. It is a matter of all.
In the prophetic words of one, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”
It is one man’s dream. It is one people’s salvation.
And one day it will come.