I saw the procession coming down King Street and pulled over to the side of the road.

Behind the long black hearse was a line of cars, headlights on, some filled with immediate family, the rest with friends, co-workers, church members and neighbors, as the final parade of a life passed slowly by.

Without thinking, I automatically slowed and stopped, a practice I witnessed more than a hundred times when I was growing up.

White, black, didn't matter.

Granted, it's harder to do in a city where a person's last ride is often lost in rush-hour traffic. But if you grew up in rural America, you were taught this was an act of final respect, whether you knew the deceased or not.

I'm sure I didn't fully appreciate this gesture when I was young, but it means much more to me now.

Old habits

Indeed, old habits are hard to break.

It's like waving to people you don't know, speaking to strangers, or placing your hand on the shoulder of someone in need of a human touch.

These were some of the little things we were taught to do, out of human kindness, dignity, regardless of race, creed, or color.

Here in the South, we're often painted with the broad brush of racism. Sometimes it's deserved. Mostly, however, it isn't.

I grew up in the segregated South, and it certainly wasn't pretty, even from the white side of the fence. You didn't have to be a scholar to know reality did not reflect the words of independence and equality we studied in school.

In life, I learned, there will always be a disparate dispensation among people.

But in death, equality evens the score.

Mutual respect

This week's recollections of what brought about America's Civil War is a time for everyone with a Southern accent and heritage to reflect on the past, consider the consequences, and look ahead to the future.

All of us, regardless of skin color, have a stake in what we teach our children and grandchildren about what has come before. Because hatred, like love, is taught at the knee of elders and passed along for the next generation to employ.

While we are not personally responsible for discrimination in the past, neither are we immune to the pain of the present, or blind to the distrust that shadows our future.

Beyond the ceremonial cannon fire, behind the uniformed actors, beneath the scolding of some, and because we breathe the same air, we will all someday ride in that long line of cars en route to the same end.

Whether or not we slow down, pull over and show each other the mutual respect earned from living and dying on this earth, is what ultimately decides our equality as human beings.

Reach Ken Burger at 937-5598 or follow him on Twitter at @Ken_Burger.