“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” ~ Eleanor Roosevelt
While in possession of an advanced degree, I must confess to spending most of my time in life being captivated by the trivial matters. I’ve been a lover of sports, and an ardent fan of entertainment. I’ve poured over box scores and team standings far more than I have trying to understand issues of social justice or economic disparity. When it has been time for me to stand at the ballot box, my votes have been based on a cursory glance at issues, but were also influenced by name recognition and the comfort of perceived personal similarities with candidates.
I have never been political, nor considered myself a devotee of any party. My voting record, though shallow on substance, has criss-crossed party lines continually. Even now, in an ever polarizing nation where many find identity in a status of red or blue, I’m more burgundy than anything else.
I deplore partisan politics, or the mindset of opposing the other side of the aisle, simply because they are on the other side. Our country deserves, and desperately needs, far better from its’ leaders.
But this reflection is not on the failings of our lawmakers. Instead, this is meant to be a more honest assessment of the electorate. And of this particular citizen. It seems we have become so entrenched in our views, that despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we will hold even tighter to our positions, even when they are detrimental to our country as a whole, or when they are based in obfuscation and the propagation of false narratives.
My students and I spend a huge chunk of time discussing the great experiment of freedom in our nation, and by default, the fight of the oppressed to gain their rightful share of liberty. We delve extensively into the plight of women and people of color, and the amazing courage and resolve evidenced by their stories. We explore the courage of The Little Rock Nine, the resolve of James Meredith, and the audacity of Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ruby Bridges, Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, Malcolm X, Diane Nash, Medgar Evers, and of course Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
We role play what it might have felt like to be segregated, spending a few days of class setting up a kind of false hierarchy, so kids can feel the sting of bias built on superficial attributes. Then we debrief, and explore our experiences, mining the lessons that we can apply to our lives, and how we treat people that are different than us. We embrace diversity, instead of being afraid of it, knowing that our nation climbed to it’s current greatness through collective struggle.
In the backdrop of these lessons, I ponder the words of Dr. King, penned from behind bars in a Birmingham jail, and am awash in the timeliness of his insights. This letter, written in response to white ministers who questioned the wisdom and timing of his protests, articulates how many of us cannot afford to be uninvolved in our nation’s freedom experiment. I still have no desire to be beholden to any one political party, but I must get off the sidelines of complacency, and find a way to contribute the liberty’s narrative. So if my newfound political voice on social media offends some, please understand it is not about party or politics, but emanates from a deep concern for justice. I speak or act, in some small way, to participate in this great experiment, with the belief that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Here a just a few nuggets gleaned from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
The interrelatedness of all communities – Dr. King concluded that he could not sit idly by while other people were facing oppression. He held fast to the truth that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I am not an immigrant. I am not a member of the LGBT community. I am not a female. But I am interwoven with them all. Their destiny is my destiny. Their rights and freedoms are tied to my own. And if one part of our nations’ body suffered, we all suffer with it.
Beware of protest fatigue – There was a groundswell of protests sweeping across our nation in the 50’s & 60’s, mostly in opposition to the war and the gross racial inequities woven into our social fabric. The past several months have witnessed some of the largest protests in our nations history. The infiltrate our news, and cover the pages of our social media feeds. Many of us decry the desire to make our social media fun again. And as much as I enjoy fun videos of dog’s playing piano, or quizzes that reveal my supposed age to be twenty years younger or 30 IQ points higher, while I sit in the comfort of my home scrolling social media, millions of people live in fear of deportation or exploitation. They fear a government structure that has targeted them, and strives to blame the woes of our great nation, on a few select races, religions, or cultures. Shall we simply turn a blind eye, and return to scrolling photos on Snap, the Gram, or the Book? Are we more concerned about our personal entertainment and prosperity, than the basic freedoms of others?
Privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily – History bears out this sad truth, that people who have the economic and political advantages seldom yield those advantages to create a more equitable society. Why would you feel compelled to give up your relative prosperity, especially when you feel somehow entitled to it by birthright, or by the fruits of your labor and talents. Yet often we are unaware of the inherent tipping of the scales that have favored us before we came into being. Centuries of laws, policies and practices have favored some parts of our society over other ones, often blinding us to their hidden mechanisms, or worse, intoxicating with in the insidious belief that we are somehow superior and thus more deserving of these advantages.
Some laws are unjust – King, like Ghandi before him, advocated nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. He answered the moral dilemma of how as citizens who respect the laws of the land, we should be compelled to disobey laws that are unjust and immoral. That this is in fact, the highest form of respect for the law. This compulsion to a higher law has been a staple of the Christian faith, and of our American experiment.
The greatest obstacle to justice are those more concerned with order – King’s greatest frustration was often with the white religious leaders of his day. They often felt a great concern for order and status quo, than they did for resisting the practices and policies that our nation or the satiates used to deny people their constitutional rights and freedoms. Maintaining order is comfortable, when your own rights aren’t at stake. But when we realize we live in a web of interrelatedness, we cannot sit idly by professing moderation and gradual change. Resistance demands the fierce urgency of now. As King lamented, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
One day, this nation will recognize its real heroes – We are in the midst of tumultuous times in America, where our great experiment is under constant siege. Fear, blame, and division are being spread from the very top of our national power structure, inciting the peoples of our nation to build walls, and to mistrust those who look or speak differently than we do. We are told to assume they are somehow less American. That our nation has lost some of its past luster, and they are to blame. But this fallacy runs contrary to the very experiment itself. Now is the time for women and men of courage to find their voice, and to push back against the lies and fear-mongering. The agitators of the 50’s and 60’s now have schools, bridges, libraries and highways named in their honor. They stood against fear, hatred, injustice and division. Through courage, they fought to preserve the precious truths of our constitutional heritage. They safeguarded our national experiment, carefully handing it over to the next generation; you and I. It is our turn to stand in the gap. Our moment to build bridges, not walls. Our call, not to be political, but to be protectors, of the great American experiment.
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
– Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood, Martin Luther King, Jr