I often don’t have anything useful to contribute to the mountain of much more relevant and well-written tributes to Dr. King on the day we officially remember him. I am not African-American, I don’t go to church, and while once I would have considered myself a pacifist I think I’ve strayed from even that position a little. Yet it was that pacisfism that attracted my attention as a kid. It was something my conservative grandfather hammered (figurately, of course) into me – violence has no place in personal behavior. As a younger man I relayed that into dovish foreign policy views, and always thought of King’s quotes concerning violence when making a moral case against war. As I said, though, I’ve largely moved away from this view but his rhetoric still inspires me. From his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.
My most impactful memory of this day comes from childhood. What I remember most from elementary school (1st grade, I believe) is a teacher spending M.L.K. Jr Day executing a type of experiment in the class. Drawing names from a hat, half the class was designated as “colored” for the day and the other half “white.” It didn’t dawn on me until much later that it had to be done this way because we were all white. My name was drawn for the “colored” half, and I spend the day as a second-class citizen of sorts – restricted to one type of bathroom and fewer breaks, no snack, homework in the hallway while the “whites” played inside the classroom, etc. At the end of the school day our teacher explained that our experience was a taste of how things used to be in our country, and in some cases still existed. I was thunderstruck. Though I knew about the past in a textbook sense, of course, I couldn’t reconcile such behavior with the values I was taught growing up. Having been raised by a liberal mother who taught at our local community college – which represented the only racial diversity in the county – and a feminist to boot, social equality was a normalized-reality in my innocent mind.
It’s hard for me now to believe that such a classroom experiment could be done in today’s hyper-aware culture. Of course the other reason it probably wouldn’t be done is because, even in my relatively racial homogenous school district, there are greater numbers of racial minorities in my hometown. Though my home county is still 95.8% white, my elementary school system didn’t enroll it’s first minority student until I was in the fifth grade. Thinking back now I’m surprised the public school system spent as much time on King’s remembrance as it did – and for Civil Rights in general – even though it still doesn’t close for the holiday. As an adult, with a child of my own to teach these things, I’m still not entirely settled my feelings of that day in 1st grade. Regardless of whether such a things was appropriate, it was effective. I never again thought that any type of social equality was a given in our society. Martin Luther King Jr Day ceased being a holiday about a nice man who did good things in the past. It became a day that taught me a lesson on social justice – wherein such a thing wasn’t a celebration of past victories but a reminder of those battles that still need to be won for the cause of equality.
*Bonus – Lesser known Dr. King quotes: