Forty years ago, I was a senior in high school. What I “knew” about Martin Luther King, Jr was that he was a “trouble-maker” and “a communist.” Mostly, I didn’t have many thoughts about him at all, but when his name came up in my community near Birmingham, AL at that time, those were the two phrases. And, those phrases mattered.
I now know that “trouble-maker” was white racist code for a black human being who was presuming to speak up and speak out. I knew even then that “a communist” was one of the scariest words around. I was born during the end of the Korean conflict, was a child when the Bay of Pigs took place in Cuba, grew up during the Cold War, had dinner every night with the Vietnam War on television. No word inspired fear in Americans back then like “communist.”
In the fall of that year, forty years ago, I went to college, and in that year was required to watch some documentaries that included many of MLK’s speeches. I remember sitting one night, alone in a media viewing room, watching King and listening to his speeches. I was overwhelmed with emotion. The emotions were many things. My heart and mind swelled with the truth that I knew he was speaking about the human condition, the arc of justice, the inherent dignity that belonged to every human being. Even as a child, I had questioned what I heard and saw going on around me between white and black people, with few voices who would respond to me, and this man gave voice to it all. I was also filled with anger that at 19 years old what I knew of this man was a lie and that the movement he led had not until then penetrated my small, safe, white world.
There are so many things that my 19 year old self would not have imagined. Like a national holiday honoring this “trouble-maker and communist.” Like electing twice our first President of Color. And, sadly, following that first President of Color a President who is a racist, a misogynist and a perpetual liar.
I need the reminder of this MLK National Holiday this year more than I ever have, perhaps, in forty years. Our nation needs this holiday. Damage is being done to the dignity of the nation’s soul and to us as individuals every time we sit in silence and say nothing about what is currently being perpetrated in the name of the American people. Martin Luther King, Jr has shown us what to do, how to be, and he has told us why we must rise up, speak up and show up.