A winter blast of ice laden with snow caused a ninety-minute delay for school today in our fair St. Louis, and with tomorrow being a review day for Friday's test, I had some wiggle room for today's class. I don't often make a habit of spotlighting holiday commemoration in class; I prefer instead that we remember the reality of whatever celebration throughout the year, whether it be Christmas (for Jesus' life), Easter (for Jesus' risen power), or other matters. It also is the reason why I don't always speak out a lot about events like Martin Luther King Day. It's not that I don't like the commemoration; I believe as a major historical figure, King has earned his place in history. It's not that I fear we are marginalizing other civil rights leaders by celebrating King's work (although I tend to champion Jackie Robinson as the truest pioneer of American civil rights…more on that in a near-future blog). It's just that I want to see more collaboration and connection across social and ethnic lines in looking forward, and where we don't think that merely "looking back" will do the trick.
But I felt compelled to do something in class today regarding King, and so I played an audio of his "I Heave a Dream" speech for each of my Ethics classes. It was in listening again to this seminal oration that I was driven to share two things with my students.
First, how we fulfill our goals matters as much or more than what those goals are. There are many memorable statements from King's speech--his quotations from the biblical prophets Amos and Isaiah, his "let freedom ring" litany, etc.--but there's a gold nugget stored away in the middle of it all. King says, "But there is something I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."
In other words, seek the goal of true justice, but do so from true hearts, noble actions, and honorable motives. The history of humankind is littered with those who might have had decent desires but tried to achieve them wickedly (I'm sure many of us have read of Pope Urban II pressing the Crusades, or Vladimir Lenin transforming Russia into the Soviet Union, among others). King was both noble and wise to demand that his compatriots aim to achieve their dreams via methods that were both good and true.
The other matter is what I shared with my students at the very end of class. Yes, King's speech happened just over fifty years ago. I get it that not every one of us has been on the front lines of the civil rights struggle. But the fight against injustice binds us all and is part of everyone's story, whether one has been abused or discriminated against unjustly. It even goes beyond that if some of us trace our family histories back far enough. We can find ancestors who were flogged, persecuted, or assailed for religious reasons. Some can claim a family tree where some branches were shorn during events like the Holocaust. Or--much to our chagrin--we can also discover that instead of being the victims of injustice, some of our ancestors were perpetrators of evil. We have enslaved and been slaves if each of us traces far enough back.
The struggle for the better angels and against the demons of our natures is what King dealt with--and ultimately what he laid down his life for. But it was not only his story. It is yours and mine. And the work of reconciliation is everyone's story.