Martin Luther King Day, 2013: Two Takes
It’s obvious that President Obama’s second inauguration will occur tomorrow on the Martin Luther King Federal Holiday. And it’s obvious that Barack Obama is well aware of it. The re-elected president will be taking his oath on two Bibles: Abraham Lincoln’s and Martin Luther King’s. Myrlie Evers – widow of one of the first well-known martyrs of the U.S. Civil Rights struggle, of which the Reverend King became the leader – is giving an invocation. And there’s a new official Presidential portrait, one that shows a smiling Chief Executive with noticeably gray hair.
The point of mentioning the last factoid? It’s that President Obama is now twelve years older than Martin Luther King at the time of his death. We tend to forget how young King was when he was assassinated: he was only 39, and his hair had not grayed. When Barack Obama was first elected, he was 47 years old (and looked considerably younger) and to many U.S. citizens, he embodied the promise of the Civil Rights’ Movement. There was a lot of talk about a post-racial politics. This country congratulated itself on its ability to move beyond the significant parts of its history that are tragically race-riven and instead, to embrace a more enlightened, 21st-century present and future.
Alas, such a transition has not been accomplished easily, and perhaps hardly at all. Barack Obama’s presidency has been assaulted by overt and covert racial attacks: on his birth, his religion, his family, his political legitimacy, his intelligence, his understanding of what it is to be American. And not just by crazy far-rightists – also by the ‘responsible’ leaders of the opposition, who convened on his first inauguration to plot how to ruin Obama’s presidency. Kind of like the FBI attempts to discredit Martin Luther King.
So why is this (now gray-haired) man smiling in his new official portrait? It may be because he’s survived, literally and politically. He’s been to the mountaintop and seen the promised land of a better United States. And it appears that he believes he’ll get there. This is the Martin Luther King mantle that, I believe, Barack Obama has claimed.
King (and certainly not only King) prepared the road. Obama has had the confidence and the political smarts to walk it. His first term was about securing legitimacy and politically managed change, most notably with the Health Care bill, an heretofore unreachable goal for Presidents reaching back to Theodore Roosevelt. His second term may be about fighting – fighting really hard, yet fighting with liberated and righteous joy – for racial and economic fairness in this country and for a more ethical yet efficacious role in the world. These are the sorts of fights that Martin Luther King, if his life had not been so tragically cut short, would have endorsed . . . and joined.
Such may be reasons why President Obama’s new portrait shows a self-assured, smiling middle-aged man in contrast to the Reverend King’s photographs, which suggest a contemplative, even sad person who is already looking beyond real-world mountains. Maybe Martin Luther King foresaw his own untimely death and thought a next generation (or generations) would be the necessary embodiments of his hopes and ideals. Maybe Barack Obama realizes that he has crossed an age divide – that he can now be seen as a fully initiated elder instead of as a newcomer who’s not yet earned his chops. Maybe our President believes he can actually accomplish some, or many, of King’s legacy missions, plus new missions time and circumstance and personal convictions have mandated . . . given a second term with its severing of re-election fetters and its baseline of carefully built popular (minus the crazies) goodwill.
And maybe he can.
[Few people will be interested in my own ‘journey’ with Martin Luther King. Thus, let me suggest that non-family and non-close-friend readers now go back to more useful pursuits. But for those who might want to know how Dr. King influenced me (and by analogy, people like me), read on.]
I grew up in what might have been the most UN-diverse communities in the United State: Marinette WI; Menominee MI; Appleton WI: (short diversion, due to polio epidemic) Yorkville IL; back to Appleton WI. What did these northern Great Lakes state towns have in common, back when I was young? No African-American citizens. No Latinos. No Asian-Americans. Almost no American Indians. Heck, almost no Jews or Italians, and certainly no Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus or anyone else who wasn’t Roman Catholic or Lutheran (except for a scattering of other mainstream Protestants ). In other words, I grew up in totally ‘white’ environments.
Somehow, I got hooked on ‘Africa’ when I was about ten years old. (The ‘somehow’ is probably not too mysterious – I was a contrarian kid, so I found something to be different about. To my parents’ great credit, they rolled with their older daughter’s tide and even supported it.) My first-ever date was with a Kenyan exchange student from nearby Oshkosh. My folks accompanied this young man and me (then thirteen) into our church and up to communion, staring down the shocked looks and then going farther, hosting a brunch for him and his Episcopalian church sponsors at our house. Not many of our church’s regular congregants came.
Fast forward to college. Wellesley College, to be specific. Hillary Rodham (later Clinton, whom I knew only in passing) was in my Freshman class, which included, as far as I can remember, only one African American student. I did what I believed I wanted and needed to do – get engaged to an eligible Harvard man, which happened when I was still seventeen and he was a Senior. Unfortunately, my fiancée went down to Duke Law School, in North Carolina, after his graduation, which left me stranded, at eighteen and a Sophomore, at Wellesley.
What to do? Raise my GPA [which was woeful, as my Freshman efforts had been directed toward areas that had nothing to do with academics] and bolster my general serious-girl record so I could transfer to Duke and join my fiancé. And find other things to keep me from going crazy.
(Yes, Martin Luther King is coming . . . )
Since I really didn’t want to go crazy, I rediscovered the happiness that can attend hours in the library and research-empowered eureka moments. But, needing and having time for more contact with my classmates, I started attending a small discussion group in my dorm, a group ostensibly focused on African issues. Which turned out to be African American issues. About which I knew virtually nothing.
These few young women were completely different from any (including Hillary Rodham) that I’d so far met at Wellesley. They were . . . ACTIVISTS! In other words, they thought it wasn’t enough to sit on heirloom oriental carpets in our common rooms and talk about economic and racial inequity. Some were planning to help on voter registration drives during summer vacation, and many volunteered in various area programs. It was with through these women that I first became aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Shamefully, I had not really heard of him until then; even more shamefully, I pretended that I had. Thank goodness I had reacquainted myself with the wonders of libraries, so I was able to read some of King’s writings and to find out what he actually was trying to do. My ignoble motivation was to not appear stupid to my new, worldly older friends.
With this group’s encouragement, I did do mentoring in Roxbury (a then disadvantaged section of Boston), although I never felt very good at this job, as I was younger than many of the young women I was supposed to be helping. Mainly, I supplied them with cigarettes so they would talk to me. I suppose that smoking together on the steps of their high school did something useful , but don’t ask me what it was. I did try bringing up Dr. King, but they hadn’t heard of him.
Fast forward: I’ve successfully transferred to Duke University, I’m a Junior, and my wedding is two months away. I’m studying in my dorm, when news trickled in that Dr. King had been assassinated. Soon, more news – that Durham NC was in flames. (Which it was – almost all of Ninth Street was burning.) My fiancé picked me up around midnight, and we drove through smoke-filled streets and out to the highway, heading to his parents’ home in Greensboro where we thought it would be safer. I had not yet adjusted to the South (there was still a huge ‘Welcome to Smithfield’ sign sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan looming over the only route to the beach) and, frankly, I was terrified that night. By what or whom, I wasn’t even sure. But this furious, confused, smoldering world was not one I knew.
Fast forward to a few years later: I entered graduate school (once our daughter was pre-school age). Back then, graduate students in English could be ‘qualified’ to teach Freshman classes one week after their own matriculation into the program. I was, so I did. The prescribed ‘reader’ for Freshman English was a collection of essays (almost none of which I’d read previously, as I’d taken no literature classes in college), so for that pre-class week, I poured over the textbook, trying to get ideas about how to use the materials to help young people write more effectively.
One of the essays was Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I may have read it earlier, with my Wellesley study group, but certainly not with extraordinary attention. I can still remember the excitement of finding such a huge variety of argumentative strategies, logical syllogisms, and rhetorical appeals in this relatively short document. And I remember how these masterfully orchestrated words affected me then, as I was about to embark on a teaching career that ultimately lasted decades.
The point was not the beautiful craft of the letter. The point was that Dr. King had something extremely important, and extremely urgent, to say – and that he had the skill, patience, and wisdom to use the craft of writing in order to get his ideas across and move his audience to action.
This seemed to me then – and now – a wonderful and ethical baseline upon which to teach writing and literature. It’s how, to the best of my ability, I structured those first classes. It’s how I structured subsequent classes, from literature surveys to graduate seminars. It’s what I asked from my students’ writing . . . that they have something real and true to communicate and that they respect that position enough to take the care to write it very, very well.
That’s the biggest gift that Martin Luther King gave me and, I hope, many students over the years after his death.
There are myriad ways to effect change in this world. Dr. King embraced most of them, from speaking and preaching and writing to organizing and marching and, ultimately, dying. Most of us do not have such courage and greatness of spirit. But if we can learn something from even one aspect of King’s works and life – and try honestly to put it into practice – we are honoring his memory by attempting to make our shared earth, insofar as our spheres of influence and our individual talents allow, a little bit better.