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.
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.
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.