Basic wisdom says a problem can’t be solved before it’s admitted and understood. This is where we start. America is not working for most of its people. We are frequently divided, angry, and ignorant to how others experience life here. But we can do better. Much better. I wonder about this question: How much more fair and just would our country be if we understood more deeply the life and ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King? My next few blog posts, leading up to the MLK holiday in January, 2015, will consider this question. I may even get another poet or writer to share some ideas on Dr. King here as well. I hope you’ll join me in considering these ideas over the next few weeks.
A few years ago, when I taught at American University, a colleague suggested I teach a semester-long writing course on Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it might bore students to read and study one person for an entire semester. Nonetheless, she kept urging me and I’m glad she did. I decided to go for it and settled on this format. We read Dr. King’s three “political autobiographies.” Stride Toward Freedom, his first book, tells the story of the Montgomery Bus Protest. Why We Can’t Wait covers the campaign in Birmingham, Alabama. Where Do We Go from Here? is his last book, written during the last year of his life. Just exploring the writing styles of these three books was fascinating. Stride Toward Freedom shows the writing of a young man, a new activist. Why We Can’t Wait has the voice of a more seasoned and strategic thinker. Where Do We Go from Here? reveals the depth and width of Dr. King’s vision. In this final book, he writes courageously aware of his own mortality and of the urgency of nonviolence. He writes from an international perspective, blended with his immediate concerns for America.
I taught this course twice and both times proved very rich experiences– at least for me. We had terrific discussions and the students wrote insightful essays. I observed their obvious attraction to his ideas, which birthed in me a deeper conviction that his analysis, of our country and our world, could help us all. This past May, the last of those students graduated from AU and it was great to hear from some of them about much they valued that course, especially its lively discussions.
Consider where we are today. Our country currently wrestles with serious concerns about police violence. After high profile acquittals and non-indictments of police officers who killed Black men, the whole of America sees something which Black Americans have lived with daily. We see enormous and tragic disparities in the way our justice system treats African-Americans.
For the past fifty years, we see middle-class incomes nearly stagnant, while the incomes of the wealthiest Americans rise to astounding levels. Most middle-income Americans never see their wages rise beyond the cost of living, if that. This has created one of the most unequal economies in the developed world. We are becoming a country with a dramatic chasm between the “haves” and the “have nots.” This has racial implications and dangerous consequences for our democracy.
Also, in the last fifty years, we see corporations and big business in America taking the reigns of government in worrisome ways. The rise of money in politics, the power of lobbyists, all gives control and influence in government to a small circle of interests. Most Americans have no such voice. If I call the member of Congress who represents me, will I get an appointment? Not likely. If the CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation calls a member of Congress, will she or he get an appointment? Very likely. This is not good for our democracy. This has caused countless Americans to give up on our system, to believe “the game is rigged.”
Dr. King’s belief in the dignity of each person has something to say to each of these growing problems in America. At the core of his philosophy of Non-Violent Direct Action lives the idea that each person has value and that each person, deep down, is good. To experience this, we have to imagine life from the perspective of those we don’t know, especially from the perspective of those who suffer. White people have to imagine and try to understand what it might be like to go through the American society as an African-American. I have always believed there was nothing I could not achieve in this country. But what if I had voices around me regularly showing me, as James Baldwin wrote, “the ceiling of low expectations.” I have never been followed by security guards in any store. But what if I regularly experienced that public distrust?
This exercise of the imagination is not easy. Most of us have been filled with stereotypes about what “the others” are like. Whether “the others” are of another race, gender, class, or sexual orientation, one of the first steps toward positive change comes when we accurately understand the problems around us. And we can’t accurately understand the problems around us if we see only from our own vantage point. We must work our imagination. We must try to see the world from the perspective of those who suffer. This is a first step. But it’s an essential one.
Photo: Donald Uhrbrock / Getty Images