It feels especially important to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this year. To stop and consider, reacquaint or learn anew, admire and give thanks for his incredible courage and conviction and impact. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and Ferguson, repeated and outrageous police conduct, overt racism within our criminal justice system... The list goes on, and while I'm certain Dr. King would be chagrined by how tenacious the tentacles of systemic racism continue to be, I also think that the intensity of interracial dialogue about and responses to the recent tragic events might sustain his hope. In many ways, they have mine. King said, in "The Birth of a New Nation," a sermon he delivered in 1957 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, "Freedom only comes through persistent revolt, through persistent agitation, through persistently rising up against the system of evil." I see, in the conversations I've been privileged to have and witness, in the actions of communities across the country, in the push-back against untrained, biased members of the police corps, such agitation, such rising up. In it, I feel optimism for a more just future.
Even a cursory read through King's speeches, writings, sermons and history of activism astounds me, each and every time: he was so forward-thinking and so incredibly able to distill societal problems into elemental arguments of right and wrong.
Just a year before he died (in 1968), he said to a crowd at Riverside Church, "So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor." Then, he was talking about unequal treatment of black and white Americans despite their having served and sacrificed equally in Vietnam. Change the context only slightly, and these words could ring equally true today.
As Tom and I drove south from DC toward Richmond last Friday, we passed, just before Fredericksburg, a giant Confederate flag waving proudly alongside I95. Both of us were shocked, rendered almost speechless. I believe Tom mustered, "Wow. Classy." while I stuttered repeatedly, "WTF?!" before taking to Facebook to express my disgust. It was brought to my attention that in addition to it being Dr. King, Jr's birthday, it was also Lee-Jackson Day.
Erm, how about a 'Happy Birthday Robert and Thomas' sign instead of the flag which symbolizes infinitely more than -and perhaps not at all?!- their birthdays?
That said, I believe in free speech as well as the words of Maajid Nawaz* who, and I'm paraphrasing here, avers that while we all have the right to be offended, we cannot insist that others not offend us. The bigot flying that flag can do so but I have every right to be pretty grossed out. There is a difference between systemic oppression and free speech, and I do believe that in a democratic society, we need to fight the former while respecting the latter. Oppression is different than offense although I admit the line between them is sometimes uncomfortably thin.
Today, and in the days and weeks and months to come, I urge us all to consider how we might better listen to opposing viewpoints with open hearts and ears; how we might tease out ugly words from ugly policy and focus our efforts on combating the latter. We are getting nowhere with overly partisan screeching. It's sometimes easier to propagate ideology and violence than to listen to the pain in each other's hearts and respect differences, in opinion and experience.
I took the boys down to the MLK, Jr. Memorial today, and boy was it glorious. We walked hand in hand under the bright blue sky, reading the many quotes of King's etched in the stone surrounds. Oliver said, "Do you know that when Mawtin Lufer King was a boy, he had a white fwend? And then that white fwend's mom wouldn't let vem play togever anymore just because of skin?" Jack said, "Isn't that stupid?! Also, Martin Luther King said that if one person wasn't nice, that would hurt us all. It's like, you can't be a bystander."
They get it, and I am so grateful. I hope, so deeply and dearly, that at some point, it's gotten by all. That the Dream and the Marches and the brutality and judgment that so many had to endure will be things that we reflect back upon with reverence (and relief at their passing) rather than ahead to in any way.
~~~~~ *Do y'all know of Maajid Nawaz? Born in Britian, he was a member of a radical Islamist revolutionary group until he was imprisoned in Egypt in 2001. During his time in jail (until 2006), he befriended many other Muslim activists and thinkers, studied, learned and ultimately came to believe that "I was abusing my faith for a mere political project. After learning through my studies in prison that Islamism was not the religion of Islam, but rather a modern political ideology, I no longer felt guilty simply for criticising a political system inspired by 7th century norms." After release, he co-founded (with other former radical activists) Quilliam, an anti-extremist think tank.
After recently hearing him interviewed on NPR and being amazed by how incredibly thoughtful, insightful and well-spoken he is, I've just ordered his book, Radical.