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I was about 4 years old when MLK was assassinated.  I had no idea of the event or the man until years later.  Like Sidney Poitier, I eventually knew of these men but missed the boat on them.  

Now that I'm significantly older than 4 years old, I know exactly what it's like to have passionate feelings about an individual that I can't quite get across to younger minds and hearts.  Not because they're stupid or distracted but because they're so young they simply missed the boat.  They watch your enthusiasm and wish they knew what you meant.

What I would like to share today is my personal MLK.  The young black man who greatly influenced this white man's view of black America.  And he didn't just influence me but millions of younger hearts and minds.  Though so few remember to speak of his gift.

His initials are MJE.  No, not Michael Jackson's Entertainment production company, but Michael Jonas Evans.  I promise you most of his fans don't know him by his given name.

They know him by his stage name.  A character he once played.  

Lionel Jefferson.

I mean no disrespect to the memory of MLK and the King Family.  The simple fact remains that for people like me, Lionel Jefferson rocked my world -- the way MLK rocked the world of folks older than me.

What do I exactly mean by people like me?  White people who lived in parts of America where black people were few and far between.  There were zillions of people like me back in the early 70s.  And, as irony would have it, I lived in one of the most notorious 'liberal' states in America.

So for a kid like me to make a black friend was virtually impossible.  There was one black kid in my grade at that point.  As you can imagine he was kind of everyone's friend... for fear of getting his ass kicked otherwise.

Anyone who grew up back then -- in a small-minded town before the internet -- understands that there were very few ways to reach out into the world without a car.  My way?  Comic books, books, music, movies... and television.  

Especially television.

Hit shows on television offered isolated peeps like me a way to hang with cool and different people.  Lieutenant Columbo?  One of the smartest people I knew.  Captain James T. Kirk?  One of the bravest.  

And the cast of ALL IN THE FAMILY were some of the most 'real' people I ever knew.  They were just like people all around me, but they were willing to admit who they were.

Lionel Jefferson was first black man to regularly 'visit' my home.  Not with historic speeches or marches, but simply an accessible young dude dropping by to say HI.  

There's no doubt that millions of Americans my age could make the exact same statement.  That watching Lionel say or do anything was utterly new and terribly fascinating.  I repeat:  millions of Americans.  

And so when Lionel said something funny as hell, and his white friends Mike and Gloria laughed, we the white viewers could be 'cool' and laugh along with Mike and Gloria, and feel like in some small little way he had a funny cool black friend too.

I cannot adequately express the impact of these visits.  

Where I had regularly overheard adults in my life casually making racist jokes over cocktails, I started to realize these jokes were indirectly aimed at the likes of my television friend Lionel Jefferson.  It made no sense to me -- considering how Archie Bunker these racists were in reality.  

I know I took offense to Lionel's people being trashed, because from my point of view, Lionel and I were 'friends' -- and therefore -- the very same people.

The only way to get young people to understand this impact is if they've been fans of the MODERN FAMILY show and if they, in turn, have been surprised to hear adults around them appear uncomfortable with Mitch and Cam.  The show presents three 'modern' families, and Mitch and Cam (and adopted Lily) are simply another Modern Family.

If you're a young reader wishing you hadn't missed the Lionel Jefferson bus, you haven't.  ALL IN THE FAMILY is everywhere, and what is shocking is that the show hasn't really aged that much.  Sure, it portrays a now 'vintage' period of America but speaks to so many issues that feel ripped out of today's headlines.  If you ever wished MODERN FAMILY was more realistic, ALL IN THE FAMILY is waiting for you.

In closing, I suppose the one way I could honor MLK is to say that without his leadership, vision, and inspiration, I would have never met my good friend MJE.

Originally posted to The Pool Man on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 04:29 PM PST.

Also republished by Barriers and Bridges and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  All in the Family Rocked! n/t (7+ / 0-)

    FREEDOM ISN'T FREE: That's why we pay taxes! Find me on Linkedin.

    by mole333 on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 05:47:59 PM PST

  •  Yeah, I think I learned more of my outlook (5+ / 0-)

    from Norman Lear (and his cast of characters) than any other single person.  Lionel was certainly a good part of it.

    One of my earliest grade-school friends was David Lawrence Maxwell.  We shared a name, and that helped cement a friendship.  His mother was white, and his father black, and we had a ball singing along with Three Dog Night's new song every time we heard it on the radio.  His older brother was named Malcolm...and I knew that was important, but I didn't know why.  I knew even less about MLK, until many years later.

    "Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana." --Townes Van Zandt

    by Bisbonian on Mon Jan 20, 2014 at 06:55:23 PM PST

  •  For my white students in the 90's (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    TheDuckManCometh, Senor Unoball

    Will Smith was their "gateway" black person. The Fresh Prince was wildly popular. Carlton was a helpful character, as a Black nerd.

    "The will must be stronger than the skill." M. Ali

    by awhitestl on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 07:08:06 AM PST

  •  Familiarity destroys contempt. (5+ / 0-)
    Lionel Jefferson was first black man to regularly 'visit' my home.  Not with historic speeches or marches, but simply an accessible young dude dropping by to say HI.
    >snip<
    And so when Lionel said something funny as hell, and his white friends Mike and Gloria laughed, we the white viewers could be 'cool' and laugh along with Mike and Gloria, and feel like in some small little way he had a funny cool black friend too.
    >snip<
    Where I had regularly overheard adults in my life casually making racist jokes over cocktails, I started to realize these jokes were indirectly aimed at the likes of my television friend Lionel Jefferson.
    >snip<
    I know I took offense to Lionel's people being trashed, because from my point of view, Lionel and I were 'friends' -- and therefore -- the very same people.
    This is how it works. Once you know some one of the "other", once you have broken through the bullsh!t and made contact with the other human underneath that stereotype, it becomes obvious that prejudice and generalized hatred are misplaced (at best). You no longer can nod along with racist (or sexist or...) jokes, the intolerant bullsh!t flowing out of a hater's mouth is no longer credible and change happens.
    All In The Family tackled a lot more than racism. And other shows have done the same for women, for LGBT, et cetera.
    Unfortunately, there is a counter current also. Duck Dynasty (Who™?) and FUX noise contribute to an acceptance of overt racism, sexism, homophobia, et cetera.

    If I ran this circus, things would be DIFFERENT!

    by CwV on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 08:27:44 AM PST

    •  You beat me to it. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      chimene

      "Hello, we're black. We're also kind of ... just like you. Except black. Boring sometimes, funny sometimes, energized sometimes, passionate sometimes, hungry sometimes, sleepy sometimes.

      "This shouldn't be news, but apparently, the fact that we're amazingly NORMAL disappoints some people and shocks others. So we'll keep on keeping on for some years until the profound NORMALITY of our existence finally dawns on enough people."

      I didn't realize the number of black people on "The Cosby Show" was amazing until well after it was no longer new.

      "Homeless veteran" should be an oxymoron.
      "Please know that I accept you and yours with no need for explanation of [any] kind." -Translator

      by iampunha on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 03:07:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I loved the Jeffersons (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JWK, chimene

    On All in the Family...Lionel and Mike and Gloria offered a counter cultural observer's perspective to the fact that Archie and George Jefferson were, for all of their differences, the same guy. Both were cluelessly opinionated and not nearly as intelligent as they thought and both had wives they denigrated and dismissed that, at the end of the day were sharper than either husband could see in their own way...and those life lesson's scenes with Archie and Lionel were must see TV...

    Imagine how I felt when it was announced that the Jeffersons were being spun off to their own show...and how I felt when that show took what were multi faceted and complex characters from AITF and made them stereotypes...which is why Evans walked away from that show; on AITF, Lionel was proud, intelligent, more than a little militant who saw Archie Bunker for who and what he was and revealed it to all watching while never being disrespectful or dismissive and they took all of that away leaving less than a shell of the Lionel seen on AITF.

    Fear doesn't just breed incomprehension. It also breeds a spiteful, resentful hate of anyone and everyone who is in any way different from you.

    by awesumtenor on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 10:58:11 AM PST

    •  As I posted below, The Jeffersons for (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      chimene

      me as a young boy was sort of an entry path into Black America. It may very well have been stereotyped, but it served a purpose, for me at least, in presenting African-Americans as real, and most importantly non-threatening. That's an important lesson to learn as a young boy surrounded by potential fear mongering.

      "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities" Voltaire.

      by JWK on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 01:52:33 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I've been contemplating this very phenomena (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    The Pool Man, chimene

    over the past few months. I've been trying to figure out why I'm not a raging racist, bigoted, homophobe like so many of my old 'friends' have become.

    And it has to be Television. Like you, the Diarist, I grew up in rural midwest.  Every opportunity existed for me to become someone hateful, bigoted, but I didn't. I can only attribute it to shows like The Jeffersons, Fat Albert, All In The Family, C.H.I.P.S., Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman, Three's Company.

    I'm sure there are more since when you live in the sticks, your only connection to the outside world, as the Diarist points out, is Television.

    It was odd in our household watching All In The Family. My Dad would laugh at all of Archie Bunkers jokes and remarks where I identified with 'meathead'. And I always felt it was rather sad how Archie treated his wife (whom, tellingly, I cannot even remember her name without wiki).

    It was the diversity on Television that guided me to seek it out in my later years, moving to the 'city' and loving all the different cultures and people, and not being afraid of those who are different.

    The one mystery remains for me. My Father was clearly a closeted bigot. Not the sort of open racists we see today who relish in being such. My Dad laughed with Archie, and yet he too loved watching The Jeffersons (which we certainly wouldn't have watched if Dad wanted to watch something else), Fat Albert, etc.  I often wonder if my Dad would have turned the corner into the true wisdom of accepting diversity, or if in his old age he would have become a Tea Party adherent. I like to think the former.

    "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities" Voltaire.

    by JWK on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 01:48:45 PM PST

    •  You're gonna love this -- (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      chimene
      Like you, the Diarist, I grew up in rural midwest.
      I grew up in 'coastal' Massachusetts.  

      I now live in Los Angeles.  In a condo situation where I have neighbors of every walk of life:  black, latino, Asian, India(n), a fellow Mass person, and white paranoid racists.

      All In The Condos...

      QR Scan my avatar for a cheap thrill.

      by The Pool Man on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 03:25:23 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Speaking of Three's Company... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      JWK, chimene

      Many women might cringe at the idea that a show that presented women as bouncy girls at a sleepover was our guide to understanding and appreciating women.

      What I only recalled recently was the subversive part of that show:  a man living with two women.  I could blog on and on about that subject, and I just might...

      ;-)

      QR Scan my avatar for a cheap thrill.

      by The Pool Man on Tue Jan 21, 2014 at 03:27:34 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Odd man out, but I was never interested (0+ / 0-)

        in Susanne Sommers much (and even more glad these days). Janet was far more appealing. And the fact that a guy could live with two women and be friends with them is indeed subversive.

        And as with so many shows of that era, Jack pretending to be gay in order to live there was, I think, a clever way of exposing audiences to gay lifestyle. The Landlord proved to be far more creepy to my young mind than Jack as gay. The message I remember from Three's Company is that sometimes guys like guys. Not a big deal. And sometimes guys can live with girls and it doesn't have to be sexual.

        That's pretty powerful stuff for a young mind to absorb.

        "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities" Voltaire.

        by JWK on Wed Jan 22, 2014 at 12:01:22 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I don't know, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    chimene

    whenever I catch Modern Family on it seems pretty sketchy when it comes to the racial and gay humor (maybe especially the racial stuff), but maybe I haven't given it a fair shot?

    And I guess there's something to be said for even stereotypes breaking down barriers.

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