In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day, I wanted to share a story that happened while I was living in this house in Tulsa, Oklahoma cerca 1971.
My Friend Rodney and I, playing cowboys cerca 1971. I would love to see him again if anyone recognizes him in this picture who knows him now.
My Tribute to Rodney, My First Black Friend
I originally wrote this in February 2003
“First black friend” probably sounds silly to a child of today, but when I was a young kid in 1970 we lived in a white neighborhood. A white neighborhood in Tulsa, the city famous for the Race Riot of 1921. My kindergarten class had not been integrated yet. We went to the white Seventh-day Adventist church while the “black” church was across town. I had nothing against black people I just didn’t know any. That was until Rodney and his mother showed up at my front door step on a Summer Evening in 1970.
I had seen him before. My family watched them move in across the street a few days before. My mother suggested I go across the street and say hello and welcome the new black boy to the neighborhood. I was too afraid to. Afraid of what? I have no clue. Had no clue back then either. I wasn’t racist, I was prejudiced. Prejudiced is just another word for stupid. I can remember more than once riding home seeing him across the street, mother telling me to go over and say hi. No way! Why? Who knows? Fear of the unknown?
One evening as we were getting ready for an evangelistic meeting at our church there was a knock on the door. We answered the door and there stood a black woman and a little black boy. My parents said “hi” welcomed them into our house. I said nothing. Just stared. Why? I don’t know. Everyone introduced themselves and said “hi.” Everyone but me, I just stared. Rodney was the little black boy. His mother said he wanted to come over and meet me. I just stared. He looked at me. I stared at him. Even at my age I could sense the loneliness in his eyes. He took a step towards me and reached out his hand. Everyone watched as I took a step back, still staring. Everyone sensed the awkwardness. My parents and sister were embarrassed by my reaction to his gesture. His mother was the only one who was not surprised by my rudeness. He took another step towards me and tried to touch me! I took another step back. Why? That’s what I have been asking myself for the last 42 years! To ease the tension my parents said we were getting ready to go to church and invited them both to join us. Join us at the white church? Yes, the white church.
They politely declined and my parents told them they were welcomed back anytime.
On the way to church my sister asked me why I was so rude to that nice little boy. I told her he was black. She said that didn’t matter. My parents agreed. Finally I got the nerve and went over to his house and said hi. Before you knew it we were best friends. Playing Cowboys and Indians and cops and robbers and everything else that kids played in the early 70’s. When we moved a couple of years later Rodney and his mother came over to visit us in our new home. It was great seeing my friend again.
The reason I want to tell this story is because of something that never dawned on me until I was much older, and I put myself in Rodney’s position. A young black boy moving into a white neighborhood in the early ‘70s, just a couple of years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination when racial tensions were high. I could have been a great ambassador for world peace right there in my neighborhood by just walking across the street and extending my hand to the new black family. Instead I took a step backwards every time he mustered up the courage to take a step forward. Rejection. Fear. Hatred? After being rejected by me the first time he musters up the courage to take another step forward. I took another step backwards. Rejection…again. Why? Who knows? All I can say is I am so glad he was persistent enough to keep stepping forward when I kept stepping backwards. He turned out to be a great friend! I turned out to be a great friend too after the prejudice (stupidity) wore off.
My little friend Rodney reminds me of some one else who came to make friends with the world but was rejected. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” John 1:11 Thank God for people like Jesus and Rodney who look past the rejection, prejudice and pain and keep loving anyway! Where would I be without them? If it wasn’t for the persistent love of people like Jesus and Rodney I wouldn’t have developed the wonderful friendships that I enjoy today with all kinds of people, red and yellow, brown and black and white.
I have not seen Rodney in several years, but I think about him every time I meet some one new. I take a step forward and extend my hand. I smile and say “hi.” I remember that Summer Evening in 1970. I won’t make the same mistake again.
Thanks Rodney wherever you are, for moving into my white neighborhood and mustering up the courage to cross the street and meet me. I’m sorry I did not have the courage to cross the street first.