For this MLK Day, reflecting on the human struggle with skin color and equality

We can accept or deny that all humans are created equal. To accept continues America’s journey toward greatness. To deny prevents America from being great.


Walter Suza is an adjunct associate professor in the department of agronomy.

Walter Suza, Guest Columnist

“While I was still too young for school I had already learned something about discrimination.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born in inequality, grew up in inequality, preached about equality, marched for equality, went to jail for equality and died for equality.

Yet we still have inequality.

I celebrate this MLK Day by reflecting on my struggle with skin color. Born in northern Tanzania into a Black family with white ancestry, I thought I was Black, yet others thought I wasn’t. Some kids nicknamed me the “soft white kid” and didn’t choose me on their soccer teams.

I moved to Zimbabwe for education, and there the remnants of a form of apartheid made the color of my skin also an issue. Before a white-ruled Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, racist policy ensured Whites and Blacks lived segregated. My Black schoolmates wondered if I was “Colored” (lighter skin with white ancestry), even though I was amid a rugby rivalry with a predominantly white school. The offseason was more about us training to beat the white team.

The history of the United States, including its role in protecting freedom around the world, convinced me that America was where I wanted to live.

I came to America, but America had conditions.

Before becoming a citizen, I was asked to take an oath to earn the freedoms and protections. I accepted and affirmed the Oath of Allegiance. “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” I promised.

I am aware that some were forced to come here, some were killed and lost their land here, yet like me, some keep coming here for the freedoms and opportunities. Whether we are born here, forced to be here or migrated here, we are Americans. We are all promised freedoms and rights:

  • The freedom to express myself, yet it doesn’t mean I should speak hate speech.
  • The freedom to worship as I wish, yet it doesn’t mean I should persecute others for their faith.
  • The right to receive a quick and fair trial by jury, yet it doesn’t mean I should commit a crime.
  • The right to bear arms, yet it doesn’t mean I should commit gun violence.
  • The right to vote, yet it doesn’t mean I should take away others’ right to vote.

In America, we are promised freedom even to run for elected office and work for the government. Many fought and died so we might have the right to Life, Liberty and pursuit of Happiness.

There should not be conditions other than being an American to enjoy our rights and freedoms. I do not have to be a Republican to have Liberty, a Democrat to Live, an Independent to be Happy. America is a promise that in this land I have the freedom to be an American.

But America also challenges me to fight for my freedoms and rights.

In fact, all U.S. citizens have the responsibility to support and defend the Constitution, vote in local, state and federal elections, respect and obey the law and defend this country if needed.

“To keep our system of representative democracy and individual freedom, you should strive to become an active participant in American civic life,” I was told.

I am dismayed that many Americans still struggle because some continue to refuse to accept that all humans are created equal. Some in America still deny the dark past and dismiss its impact on the present.

The past refused Black and Indigenous people their rights and freedoms, which held them back as white people pursued the American dream, and yet today some dismiss people of color when they voice concerns about equality.

To heal as a nation, we must admit that some of our forebears obtained land by force and harvested slave labor for free. The oppressed lost not just land and life. They suffered trauma. They lost dignity. They lost wealth. Their descendants were denied wealth.

To heal as a nation we must admit that some gained wealth not just because of their hard work, but also because they were unjust to others.

Because some are still in denial today, millions continue to live in economic hardship; millions continue to suffer discrimination because of the color of their skin.

The deniers have often argued that anyone can make it in America if they just work hard enough.

I believe King would still respond by saying: “It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his bootstraps.”

We have a choice.

We can accept or deny that all humans are created equal.

To accept helps America become true to what it says on paper.

To deny helps America become unconstitutional.