Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Although his actual birth date was January 15, 1929, today we commemorate the birthday of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. There is little argument about how much King did for the civil rights movement in the U.S. Through righteous non-violence, he coerced a nation into looking at its collective behavior, and to be ashamed of it. He put a spotlight on the inconsistencies that no one, white or black, was willing to talk about. He illuminated for all to see that not very long ago, in this one nation, under God - all men were not created equal. The shroud that hid the hypocrisy of what we said we stood for was stripped away by showing the world what we did.

King was silenced by an assassin’s bullet in Memphis on April 4, 1968. He was just 39 years old. Some are prone to reflect on what he did, others lament that there is much is left to do. Still others wonder what the world would be like if he was not struck down in his prime. All are perfectly worthy means of reflecting on his life and consequently, raising our awareness - black, white or otherwise, about who we are and who we want to be. Indeed, did our founding fathers get it right?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

If so, what is so hard about letting go of our identification with external appearance? We’re not just talking about the pigment of one’s skin, but hairstyle, clothing, weight, sex and even height. These external characteristics are irrelevant to who we actually are, and should not be taken into consideration when we dole out civil rights. But we do. Even though legislation has effectively criminalized the kind of overt racial discrimination that King fought against, covert discrimination happens everyday, day in and day out. It happens in ways that can’t be legislated against. It happens in attitude, in judgment and in society.

King wrote extensively and eloquently. His speeches are the stuff of legend. As a writer, I am ever in awe of his skill as a wordsmith. It was just one sentence in an essay he wrote in April 1963 that sold me on the power of the written word. The essay, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” was a response to an open letter written by eight Alabama clergymen that urged civil rights leaders to practice restraint and patience… to let the courts provide a remedy for “racial problems.” At the same time, these clergymen claimed to sympathize with the civil rights cause. King would have none of it. In the great tradition of responding with well thought out and extremely well written words, I offer you this, my favorite sentence of all time.

... But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

That, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is one powerful statement. It is, at 311 words, one of the longest grammatically correct sentences around. Why so long? So King could show how smart he is, to give those eight clergymen some schooling? No, it is reflective of his lost patience. The length is symbolic of the length of the battle, the complete lack of empathy from those who claim to support his cause and how little their statement meant. And let us not forget where this letter was written. The entire essay is much longer and, if I may say so, riveting. Although I had read of it in various classes in school throughout the years, it wasn’t until 2003, 40 years after it was written, that I had occasion to read it in its entirety.

Google it, read it, live it. It’s a good way to remember a man who meant so much.

1 comment:

Vancouver Voyeur said...

Well said, both your words and his. I'm reminded of a young, white male, late teens, early twenties, who I met in college, about eleven years ago. He said there was no longer prejudice and discrimination because we'd legislated enough remedies for it. While I, as a female, and other classmates who were black and/or foreign gave him numerous examples of discrimination we regularly experienced in our daily lives. He thought we were just being hyper-sensitive and in fact, it was the white male in society who was now in the most danger of being discriminated against. We asked him for examples from his own life when he was discriminated against. He could not give any personal examples but was still certain he was right, while all of us were wrong. It is times like those that remind me, we still have so far to go; and it will be times like tomorrow's inauguration that give me hope that we will eventually get there.