The Heart of La Puente
If you have never read Martin Luther King Jr’s essay “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” then I recommend that you set this newspaper down and run (don’t walk!) to the library, where you’ll surely find a copy that you can sit down and read in about thirty minutes. I assure you that your time will be better spent with any of King’s works than with my tawdry effort that you now hold in your hands.
Since the third grade, children of our generation have been inundated with inspirational quotes from the good doctor, along with anecdotal tales of his saintliness and bite-sized fragments of the “I Have a Dream” speech. In a case of educational irony, these lessons are almost always segregated into the month of February, seldom breaking free to breathe relevance into the remainder of the year’s history lessons. Now don’t get me wrong: I believe that there is immense value in teaching children about the life and work of Dr. King. Indeed, a proper understanding of America demands an education in the accomplishments and ideas behind King and the Civil Rights Movement. My problem, then, is not that Dr. King is taught, but that he is taught in a way that is so incorrect that it borders on blasphemy. Educators (with good intentions I’m sure) have taken their apocryphal King stories and their snippets of speeches and effectively neutered the man and his message.
Take a minute right now to think about what we took away from our grade school lessons on Dr. King. I’ll summarize: “A long time ago black folks had it real bad. A man named Martin Luther King Jr. came along, gave some really awesome speeches, everybody changed their minds, and ever since little black kids and little white kids can play together or drink from the same water fountain and nobody is bothered.” Obviously, I’ve exaggerated things a bit, but for many, this is what they took away. The problem with this oversimplification of King’s work is that it declaws and takes away the teeth of his message. It was these teeth and claws that made him such a formidable opponent to the Jim Crow South’s status quo. King was a man who used words to move masses to action and (we can’t forget) other masses to great discomfort.
Under his leadership, school children walked hand-in-hand into jail cells for refusing to obey the unjust laws of segregation. King broke these laws alongside those who followed him and accepted the penalty, not only peacefully, but also with love and compassion for those who beat him physically, jailed him, and threatened to take his life. He took satisfaction in calling himself “an extremist for love.”
To really read and hear the words of Dr. King is to read and hear the words of a true radical who called upon America then, “and now”, to take action. King’s words call us to examine the imperfections in our society and to work to fix them in a way that is morally upright. He reminds us in “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” that what is morally upright does not always coincide with what is socially acceptable or what is legal. When we seek comfort and civility at any cost and refuse to take action on the issues of our day where injustice is at work, we are, by proxy, fighting against Dr. King and his supporters alongside the segregationists of the 1950s and ‘60s.
It seems to me then that the correct way to honor Martin Luther King Jr. is to really listen with fresh ears. Which injustices of today are worth standing up against? Which ones are worth going to jail for? In February 2011, countless folks are killing and dying in unjust wars the world over. Draconian immigration codes make slaves of thousands of immigrants. Homosexuals in America live as second-class citizens, denied rights that many take for granted. King wrote in 1963 that, “the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.” Why are we still afraid to answer his call?