"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."
-- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Jack Britton and Leo Boone began to learn how to be brothers nearly 40 years ago. Leo, who is black, was about 14 and attending Manual High School in Kansas City. He lived in an inner-city high-rise housing project with his mother and two sisters. Jack, who is white, was a mid-20s businessman living in an apartment in an integrated neighborhood. He belonged to an Optimist Club that decided to work with inner-city youths.
So they met and began to spend time together. Four decades later, they're still friends, and as the nation celebrates King's birthday, they're still trying to figure out why it has so much trouble with race relations.
Jack is an executive with Picture & amp; Frame Industries in Kansas City, Kan., and an active member of an Episcopal church. Leo, a Navy veteran, has held various jobs and now is finishing course work at a college to become a massage therapist. He's a member of a Disciples of Christ church.
Leo grew up with many interracial experiences and says his mother taught him he was "as good as anybody else, regardless," so in some ways their early time together was more traumatic for Jack than for Leo.
"It was more of an eye-opener for me, a poor little white boy from western Kansas," Jack says. "This guy is much more spiritual and deep-rooted than me, because his mama had already drummed the right things into him."
By contrast, Jack says, his mother "thought all the 'darkies' were better off being slaves. My mother, bless her heart, believed that."
Ku Klux Klan member
Jack says his maternal grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Kinsley, Kan., east of Dodge City. Jack had much to overcome.
"Like an unchecked cancer, hate corrodes the personality and eats away its vital unity."
Jack and Leo see hate and prejudice but they also see in their own friendship a way to fight it.
Leo: "At core we are all similar. If everybody dealt with each other on an individual basis and took that attitude into society, we wouldn't have the differences that we have, race-wise. Everybody wants the same thing: the best for their kids, for themselves. Everybody wants to be loved. Nobody wants to be hurt. And that's the common link with everyone. Actually, nobody comes into the world hating. We learn hatred."
Jack: "If everybody had an individual, one-on-one relationship, everything would be fine. But we've managed to build these barriers up that have nothing to do with reality."
After they first met, Jack and Leo and other Optimist members and the youth they were working with would meet at the Downtown YMCA. Even that was a new experience for Jack.
"After I met him and went to the Y and went to the projects," he says, "I realized the United States was in real, serious trouble. And there was not enough money in the world or one-on-one relationships that could make it work right, like our relationship did. We were just lucky. That was a revelation for me."
When Leo was in high school, he and Jack sometimes would gather with other Optimists and the boys they were connected with and go to baseball games at the old Municipal Stadium. By then, says Jack, Leo "was getting bigger and starting to grow an Afro. He was starting to look like all the other rebellious blacks that everyone had stereotyped in their minds.
"I remember walking behind these guys and watching them walking toward the stadium. People would sort of scatter." Cops driving by, he realized, would slow down and check out the young black men unless Jack or other white men were walking next to them.
Leo says he's had a friendship with Jack longer than with anyone else: "I think we both just got really blessed and lucky with our relationship. Jack always made it comfortable. If I really need to have somebody to talk to, he'd take the time and give me an ear and sometimes give me some feedback. But, much like my mother, he usually let me figure things out."
"The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers."
X Bill Tammeus is a columnist for The Kansas City Star. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.