Normally, I write about science and technology policy, the seeds of innovation and creating competitive advantage in a changing world. These are important topics, but as we remember and celebrate the important contributions of Martin Luther King, they pale in significance. The lens of history reveals our ongoing struggles to recognize, to embrace and to celebrate both our diversity and our uniqueness, and from our differences how we draw strength and unity.
Equality, respect, integrity: abstract concepts best manifest in a thousand simple acts than a few simple words. Today, I tell a simple story about the wisdom of two old men and some simple but eternal truths that crossed generations to touch the heart of a little girl.
They were ordinary men, one black and one white. Like most, they lived uneventful lives. Their story is seldom told – that changes here, now, today. Theirs is a story about the evolving dream that is America.
One Man’s Name Was Ilko
In 1888, he was born poor in a little village outside Kiev. These were the Ukrainian border territories between Poland and czarist Russia, where greater powers traded land and peoples. At 18, he left his extended family, never to see them again, lives separated by revolution, by wars and by financial circumstance.
The year was 1906, and his hope was a common one, an escape from peasant circumstances and a chance to start a new life. His dream, like millions of others, was to seize the tabula rasa that is a life, and inscribe a story in his own hand, however good or bad. This was the new world; this was the dream that was America.
He sailed from Antwerp into Ellis Island aboard an old steamship on the Red Star Line, steerage class, a family’s savings and sacrifice invested in a son. It’s doubtful the name Emma Lazarus sparked any glimmer of recognition, but he saw the statue, the torch held high before the golden door. Like countless others, he was the embodiment of her sobering sobriquet in the New Colossus, “your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.” No promises, no guarantees, just a chance is offered and the hope of a chance redeemed.
Like many, his family name was Anglicized, butchered by a tired bureaucrat at Ellis Island who could not read Cyrillic and guessed at a spelling. In the stroke of a pen, he became Ilko Slobodian, itself mispronounced by many. No matter; he was here.
He settled in Pittsburgh, where strong backs and willing hands moved coal, ore and fiery ingots in Carnegie’s mills. The years passed, and like most men, he courted and married a wife. Her name was Evdokia née Eliza, another Ukrainian immigrant who came to the United States, paying passage by working as an indentured domestic servant.
Ilko worked and saved, apprenticed and learned, and eventually purchased a small grocery store. Located on a Pittsburgh hill, it was both business and home, as a family grew downstairs. Just off the intersection of 5th Avenue and Brady Street, the store was a community crossroads for immigrant and assimilated, for black and for white.
This was the American melting pot, where Eastern European Christians and Jews and the African-American community shared neighborhoods and lived intersecting and sometimes conflicting lives. From the Saturday night bar fights to the Sunday morning church services, each group weaved its piece of the American mosaic.
Around the corner from Ilko’s little store sits a small Baptist church, where each Sunday African-American families gather to sing, pray and hope for a better time. The sounds and rituals are strange to Ilko’s Ukrainian ears, but he listens and he learns.
Poor and poorer, black and white, the neighbors all shopped at Ilko ’s store. All are welcomed via the front door. Some can pay. Some, with hungry children, cannot. For those, Ilko puts groceries on account, a convenient fiction that protects the honor of both buyer and seller. Ilko has been hungry, and his wife has been a domestic servant. Memories like those change a man.
The years roll by and Ilko grows old. Soon little Andrika and her sister Lesya are listening to Didi’s (grandpa’s) tales, as he babysits and talks of life while their parents chase their own American dream. In broken English, he reminds little Andrika and Lesya of basic truths – that everyone, no matter the background, has to eat. The simple grocer’s observation belies a deeper truth.
The Second Man’s Name Was Mr. King
Ilko died in 1966, as old men do. The family and friends gathered in a small funeral home and then the church to remember a life. Andrika, age 11, sits in an old wooden folding chair with her mother (Ilko’s daughter) and father, an immigrant who fled the Ukraine to avoid Stalin’s Gulags.
In blue collar Pittsburgh, the funeral home door opens, and a tall man, impeccably dressed, enters and slips quietly into the viewing parlor to pay his respects. The other visitors turn and watch; this was a man of influence and power, a pillar of the community. This was unexpected.
His name was Mr. King. He was Ilko’s friend. He was black. He and Ilko had forged a common bond, one man who sailed to America to seek his dream, another, whose family came in slave ships, still seeking the right to pursue his dream unencumbered by prejudice.
You must remember that these were turbulent times. Bull Connor sent his attack dogs against innocent protesters, and “separate but unequal” was the common way. The simple act of attending a white man’s funeral took more courage than most of us can now realize.
No doubt the Ukrainian funeral ritual seemed strange to Mr. King, the accents foreign, just as the Baptist ones were to Ilko. No matter, he came to pay a debt, of respect offered and respect returned, when respect was rare, when prejudice was deep. He came to honor what Ilko knew, that all men are equal, that everyone has to eat.
Little Andrika watches and understands. Mr. King, like Ilko, was a special man.
The Dream That Is America
Forty years later, Andrika and her sisters remember Ilko and Mr. King with misty eyes. The Ellis Island papers hang in places of honor, and Mr. King’s name is spoken with reverence, lest anyone forget.
In retrospect, they were extraordinary men, one black and one white, neither sinners nor saints. They lived eventful lives, and their story is all too seldom told.
They are Dr. King’s dream, America’s dream, that people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin; that all are created equal; that our diversity is our strength. And yes, that everyone needs to eat.
Today, the dream is battered, often riven by doubts, mistrust and fear. Yet we are a nation of immigrants, some by choice, and some sadly and sordidly, by coercion. The strange customs and rituals, the misunderstood creeds; the accents and languages, the foods and cultures, be they African, Asian, Middle Eastern or European, they are our past, our present and our future. They – we – are America, both a place and an ideal.
Despite the doubts and fears, the dream lives on with each new generation, with each person who hopes for what could be. It lives in the wisdom of old men who have suffered, and it lives in the hearts of little girls who understand what old men can teach.
Remember Ilko and Mr. King. Remember and honor Dr. King. They are the dream that is America. Remember and honor, lest we forget.
Coda: Touching Lives
Oh, yes, there is one more important thing. Twenty years later, I married little Andrika in that same little Ukrainian church. I am a lucky man. Ilko and Mr. King touched my life too.