Growing up white in Ethiopia and America

Margaret J. O’Connor on lessons she learned growing up in Ethiopia — and from Martin Luther King Jr.’s death

April 3, 2013

Margaret J. O'Connor

Margaret J. O’Connor

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I have two native countries — Ethiopia and Australia — and an adopted one, America. I was born and raised in Ethiopia, a daughter of Australian missionaries. We lived in a small village in the highlands of the Great Rift Valley. There, I grew up surrounded by love, gentleness and kindness — not only from my family, but from the Amhara and the Arusi-Galla tribal people among whom we lived. For me, color was never an issue. It was not black or white, but rather, friend or not.

In the village where I grew up, we were the only white children. When I was 3, my family was returning to Australia for a yearlong furlough, and another missionary family with three children was coming to take over my parent’s mission post. The children were near our ages, and when they asked my sisters and I to play with them, we were shy and ran off into the village to play with our friends.

That night, my mother asked me why I’d run away. I’d said, “Mummy, they’re so different than us.” I’d never seen another white child, except for my sisters. I didn’t grow up noticing color. That’s why I know that bigotry is learned. Hatred is learned. It’s something we teach our children.

In 1967, my family came to America — one of the most important events in my young life. I really believed the streets would be paved with gold. America was the land of plenty, the new “promised land,” one filled with opportunity, the best of the best. But within 10 months, everything changed forever for me.

Forty-five years ago today, and just a few short months after my family came to America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. I was 12, and it had a profound effect on me.

I had never been exposed to such violence or such discrimination based solely on skin color. I asked my father why they would kill him, and I have never forgotten what he said to me: “He wanted to make the world a better place, but it’s not that way right now, and one day because of him, it might be.”

From Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, I learned about things I had never known: Bigotry and violence and hatred. But I also learned how far one man’s dream can take him, a people and a nation. I learned about the passion of conviction; that nonviolence and love can triumph over blind hate. I learned about a man who awoke a nation to racial injustice and the struggle for freedom. He stirred souls and people to action with his call for unity.

If, in 1960, someone had asked if a black man coming out of the South could champion a movement whose effect would be heard and felt around the world — and by a young strawberry blonde girl from Ethiopia — the answer would be an emphatic no. But Martin Luther King Jr. saw the oppression and despair of a people. He believed that change needed to occur, “but within the framework of the American democratic set-up … One of the greatest glories of American democracy is that we have the right to protest for rights.”

With that, he began to lay the groundwork for equality for all. He believed, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” and, “Today, the choice is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.”

Martin Luther King Jr. moved a nation toward his dream. His dream sustained a people and began to turn the tide away from apathy and ignorance. And he ultimately laid down his life for his fellow man, an act of “no greater love.”

His life has taught me that anything is possible, even if I am only one. He taught me that dreams, moral fiber, integrity and compassion are essential life characteristics. And he also reminded me of that essential lesson I learned as a young girl growing up in Ethiopia — that all people should be treated equally.