In a recent interview, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Institute in Montgomery, Alabama, was asked what Dr. King would think if he were alive to witness our political world today. He said he’d be heart-broken but also excited to know that if he called a meeting, tens of thousands of people would show up. So it’s Monday, January 21st, and the country will observe in official ways Martin Luther King Day. Banks will be closed, mail will not be delivered, children will not attend school, cities will hold breakfasts or panel discussions, organized religions will conduct special services or bring in members of their local black communities to speak or sing. My question to Dr. King would be “How do you feel about these expressions of respect for you and the work you accomplished?” And I imagine he’d ask me what would be happening on Tuesday, January 22nd, to come to grips with the virulent and persistent racism alive in this country, based on white supremacy not skin color?
I often flash to my initial encounter with King. I was a sophomore in college at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That was the place where Governor George Wallace had stood in front of one of the Greek revival structures in which classes were taught on that campus. Wallace had uttered his infamous promise: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” I was taking an English course in romantic poetry and we’re were studying the poetry of Alfred, Lord Byron. Our professor, the only woman I had as a teacher while in college, had sent us home for the weekend with this homework assignment: “Is there someone alive today who meets Bryon’s criteria for the title of ‘hero.'” That Sunday morning, I happened to watch one of the Sunday news shows on national television. The person being interviewed was an impressive “Negro” man (My mother had taught me to call the black people in my world by that name so as to avoid using the derogatory “N” word.) named Martin Luther King. Listening with half an ear to his polished tonalities, I began to pay real attention to what he was saying about how unjustly he and people like him were being treated by white people like me. As I listened more closely to what he was saying, an idea began to dawn on me: This person surely fit all Lord Byron’s stipulations for being a hero. So I went to my English class on Monday feeling certain I’d get my professor’s approval for my answer to her question. When it was my turn to respond, I remember deciding to use his full name/title. So I said “My present day hero is Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior.” There was a long silence before the teacher thanked me curtly and moved to the next student who volunteered a football quarterback enjoying a successful season.
What usually happened when that class ended was two of the male students and one other female student and I went to the Student Union for a cup of coffee/tea and talk of what we’d just been learning about the likes of Wordsworth, Shelley, or Keats. When I got my beverage and walked to the table where my friends were already assembled, I was shocked by what happened next. All three of them rose from their chairs and walked to another table far away from what I assumed was to be “our” table. Too stunned to speak, I sat for a little while and drank my tea. Next class period, I stopped one of the group and asked what had their strange behavior meant? What had I done to so offend them? The person just shrugged and walked away, and that group never met again to hash over what we’d heard in class. Eventually, as I began to comprehend just how strong people’s feelings were against blacks, I understood that I had betrayed my race by saying one of “them” could possibly be our living hero.
As I came to know more about Dr. King and to read his words, I was surer than ever that I was right about naming him as heroic. And, as long as he confined his rhetoric and organizing to black and poor people of all kinds, the dominant culture tolerated him. It was when he spoke against the war in Vietnam, drawing parallels between racism in this country and what our government was doing in that other country that he became dangerous. Not long after his speech against that war, he was shot at his motel and we lost whatever other words/actions he might have graced us with. So today, I’ve read for the umpteenth time his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” and let myself feel his clarity and his humility and his unflinching desire to speak truth to white power.