Last week, our editorial team reminded me that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was coming Monday and suggested I write a post about it.
My first reaction was, “Meh.”
Not because I don’t appreciate and find great significance in acknowledging a man who (in my opinion) is one of the greatest leaders in US history, but because I don’t know what to say about it that I haven’t said before.
When we started GrokNation, I wrote one of my favorite pieces about race relations and how much I have learned from someone I work with named Melvin. That piece summed up how I feel about the current state of race is in this country, and any time I write about race or think about civil rights issues and the African-American community, I know in my heart that Dr. King inspired that sensibility for me and for the people of this country who believe in true equality for African-Americans.
Then I thought about how I recently watched the movie “Ray” for the first time, and I didn’t know that Ray Charles had also taken a stand for social justice by refusing to play at Augusta, Georgia’s Bell Auditorium because the venue was to be segregated. While the film overdramatized the event, Charles did cancel his appearance and had to pay the breach of contract fine – he didn’t play there again until after desegregation. In 1979, Charles’ song “Georgia On My Mind” became Georgia’s official state song.
And then I thought of how moved I was by the movie “Selma” and how passionate I felt about the fact that our country still has so much to learn from the lessons of Dr. King. The movie was very intense and very heavy…and so relevant to what’s going on today.
And then I felt bad. And stupid. Although I am part of the Jewish people and we are less than 2% of this country’s population, I have white privilege. And here I am gathering anecdotes and factoids I know about black people in order to conjure up thoughts about Martin Luther King, Jr. I felt bad.
So I decided to go back to the source. I pulled up Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on YouTube. And I watched it with my boys.
At ages 7 and 10, a lot of the significance was lost on them; I know it was. The clip I watched starts with “We Shall Overcome,” a song I remember learning in elementary school which instantly made me start welling up with tears. This was a song of protest, and it was a song of peace and suffering and perseverance. I love that song. To them, it must have sounded like one of the Peter, Paul & Mary songs they have grown to love but still find dated and old-fashioned.
We watched the whole beginning, and I instantly got chills. Dr. King is a gifted speaker, and I pointed out to my boys the cadence of his speech and Firstborn said he reminded him of President Obama. Yup.
He asked why he speaks like he does and I said he’s a reverend and that some reverends have a way they speak to inspire people and make their point clear. I explained that his intensity will build slowly, and that he has skills like an actor as a speaker because he has to make people understand him and inspire them. I find Dr. King’s speeches very moving and the tears were starting to come for me for sure as we watched. This speech gets me every time.
I pointed out monuments of Washington, DC where my boys have been with me and their dad. Firstborn noted that doing the speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial was important because of what Lincoln did for black people. “Yes!” I thought, he gets it. (One point for homeschooling there, I also thought!)
I pointed out the fashion on the audience members: most men wore ties. Sunglasses were retro cool. We marveled at the hats on the men behind Dr. King. And there was a woman near the microphone who made my sons giggle when she “Uh huh”’d to something he said that she really liked. I reminded my sons that there were also rabbis present and that my younger son’s middle name is Heschel, for the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who, two years after this speech, marched on Selma with Dr. King.
I was having a great time. Little Man was not impressed. He was kind of bored. Towards the middle, I said, “It’s gonna get good soon!” because I didn’t want him to walk away and the “I have a dream” part really is the exciting part!
“How could this possibly get good?” he shot back at me.
All right then.
I skipped maybe two minutes leading up to the grand finale and then the final minutes of the speech worked their magic. The use of Biblical imagery, the ringing of his voice, the dream of equality laid out along the canvas of the American dream; it’s a beautifully crafted speech and it really is one of the great speeches I have ever heard.
Dr King’s dream is not a reality today. And he described what he feared: that violent protest would lead people to believe that black people were constitutionally violent. He said that we could not rest until there are equal rights and equal treatment for black people, and he warned of the unrest that would ensue if we did not make this right.
That was 1963.
Here we are in 2016. It’s not right yet.
At the risk of sounding like a clueless white person, read my post about Melvin for some insight I’ve been given about why it’s not right.
If you haven’t heard the “I Have A Dream” speech in a while, here’s a link.
And I hope today is a day where we can all gain some perspective even in a small way about what work has been done and what work remains to be done so that all people can be free.
Because as Dr. King once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”