This is not a particularly new thought, and in a lot of ways, it’s not particularly deep, but it struck me in a new way recently, so I thought I’d share it with you today, in honor of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King helped change the world, and he was just a person. He was an inspiring person. He was an intelligent, passionate person who knew how to use his skills. He was an educated person, a reverend. But he was also just a person. Like you. Like me. A person who made choices in the face of fear. A young person, even.
Let me tell you how I came to that realization, because there was a time when I’d have thought this was sacrilege to think this, let alone to say it, or god forbid to write and publish it. So, it’s not a thought I came to lightly.
I was born after Dr. King was assassinated. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who he was, but I certainly remember when I learned the most about him, which was in third grade. Mrs. Mildram spent a week on Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement.
Of course, since I was nine, and I was learning about Martin Luther King in school, this was History. He was a Famous Person. I thought of him like I thought of Mahatma Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. They were famous people. Although I didn’t relate to the presidents, I found King and Gandhi personally inspiring — especially King, because he was American, and hoped I could do something as amazing as them one day. (What can I say? I was a sucker for social justice issues from the womb, apparently. The only other event of third grade I remember aside from our unit on MLK was when we hatched chicks — which I found thrilling — and then our teacher killed one that was being pecked to death by its siblings, which horrified me. I wanted my teacher to put that chick in a separate, safe pen, but was told that since this chick was “weak,” it would be better for everyone to kill it now.)
Then, one day — I have no idea how old I was — I happened to be in our rabbi’s office, and I saw on the wall a picture of him walking with Martin Luther King. They were marching in a civil rights march. I don’t know which one.
I was shocked.
I see the picture so clearly in my mind because every time I went into that office, which was many times, over the years, my eyes went there first. But memory is a funny thing, and it can’t be relied upon for details, so I don’t remember if one of them actually had their arm on the other, but they clearly knew each other and were walking together. I also think I remember them smiling and waving, but again, I could be wrong. There were other people in the picture — men, I think — but I didn’t pay much attention to them, so I don’t know who they are.
How could my rabbi, who — although an intimidating figure to me, but a real person, nonetheless — be walking with Martin Luther King?
This led me to several thoughts:
- My rabbi was incredibly cool. He must be a really, really good person. Better even than I had thought.
- My rabbi must be really old — even older than I had thought. How was he able to even continue being our rabbi, being so old?
- They looked happy in the picture, and that made me sad because I knew that one of them, King, would soon be murdered, while here my rabbi still was, and here I still was.
- My rabbi was even more formidable, intimidating, and unreal to me from then on.
Looking back, of course, some of this is funny. But some of it is sad. It’s sad that instead of taking away from the picture the idea that a regular person, someone I knew, could be involved in something big and important and make a difference — instead of showing me that King was just a regular person who used his life to do extraordinarily important work — my take-home message was that because my rabbi knew this famous person, my rabbi was larger-than-life now. I could learn from him, but I could never be like him.
A lot has changed over the years. I’ve learned a lot about activism, social justice, racism, systems change, etc. I’ve been an activist. The more I did, the older I got, the less I could see doing anything as major and important and scary as Dr. King did.
Then, in the early 1990s, it was coming up on the long weekend for Martin Luther King Jr Day. One of my coworkers, Susie, mentioned that she’d be away because she was going down to Atlanta, Georgia for the celebration of Dr. King’s birthday.
“Oh!” I said, surprised. I didn’t know she knew people in Georgia.
Yes, she told me, she had known Dr. King, had been active in the civil rights movement under his leadership, was from Atlanta.
Here again was evidence that Dr. King was just a person — a person who knew real people who I now knew. This time, some of that sunk in. I was starting to realize that Dr. King had not been a God, had not been a mythical figure. He was a person. His life was interwoven with the lives of others, and it was therefore natural, given his reach, that I would meet people who knew him. This was not ancient history, after all. I was born a couple of years after he was killed.
I wondered what Susie’s experience had been. I realized there was a lot about Susie I didn’t know — and wanted to know — and didn’t know if she wanted to share it with me. I remember being swept with sadness, because we couldn’t talk about this subject without the presence of Dr. King’s murder hanging in the air. I immediately wanted to convey how sorry I was about the sorrow and loss she must feel, but I was awkward and didn’t know what to say because Susie and I weren’t close, and I was still young and didn’t know yet that just saying the thing that’s in your heart, even (or especially) when it feels vulnerable, is usually the right thing. I don’t remember what I said, probably something that felt incredibly inadequate to the depth of my feelings, like, “I hope you have a good time!”
Of course, again, this put Dr. King’s age into perspective a bit, but not much. I wasn’t nine anymore, but I was in my early 20s, so my thought was, “Wow, Susie’s older than I realized!”
More recently, I’ve started studying Nonviolent Communication (NVC), which was created by Marshall Rosenberg based on his study of the nonviolent methods of Gandhi and King. NVC is not the same thing as nonviolent action, but there are overlaps. I’ve started to view some of the activities I used to take part in that I thought were nonviolent action as not truly nonviolent, from an NVC perspective. That’s a post for another time.
Where the Occupy movement has struck a chord within me the most is where it meets nonviolence and NVC. The people involved in the intersection of NVC and Occupy make the most sense to me; their ideas and efforts resonate the strongest with me. One of the best known teachers of NVC is Miki Kashtan who blogs at The Fearless Heart. A few weeks ago she posted Does Nonviolence Work? Notes from OccupyOakland October 24th. In this post, Miki writes about the effectiveness of nonviolent action (not about NVC); naturally King is part of her discussion. She included this picture of Martin Luther King marching in Memphis, Tennessee, on March 28, 1968:
The first thing I saw when I looked at this picture was how scared Martin Luther King looks. He, and the men flanking him, have the expressions of those who feel fear in the pits of their stomachs, clenching their hearts, and yet they are resolute. They are determined, in the face of very real danger, to march right into that fear. Reverend Abernathy is looking out of the corners of his eyes — it’s not clear at what, but it’s something that worries him. Bishop Smith looks angry and concerned and utterly determined, with his lips pursed.
But King, the naked fear on his face mixed with determination, the youth, and the exhaustion, just socked me in the gut. “My god,” I thought, “he was so young, and so scared, and he did it anyway.”
Of course, intellectually I knew he must have been scared to do the things he did. He’d already been stabbed. He knew there were assassination plots against him. He’d been on the receiving end of violence at the hands of white police. But most of the photos of him show him looking thoughtful, determined. Often he is smiling or laughing.
This picture was taken eight days before he was killed, and he seemed to have an idea that was coming, given what he said in his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” He was only 39. I am older than Martin Luther King was when he was assassinated. What he achieved in such a short time is humbling.
Of course, the first face you look at in this picture is King’s — his is the famous face, his is the emotional and visual center of the photograph, his is the one highlighted by the sun. And then the faces of the men whose arms are clutching his — also strained, determined, worried faces and tense arms and hands. And then the faces of the men and women behind him — scared, tired, wondering, determined expressions. Some surprised. Some looking shell-shocked by violence. King was in Memphis to support a sanitation workers’ strike, so my guess is that many in that crowd were sanitation workers trying to get a decent work contract. It took King’s murder to achieve that.
Being involved in a populist movement for the first time in my life, after having been in so many smaller movements that have not generally had public support, and having access to social media for the first time, has put me in contact with hundreds of people with whom I’d never have connected before. Not all of them share and understand my commitment to and involvement in queer rights, women’s rights, and especially disability rights. But these are people who believe in a movement that will make life better for all — at least, that is what I hope and think we all want. And I realize that yes, we are all just regular people, and we are trying to be a leaderless movement, but Martin Luther King did not have Twitter or Facebook or Youtube. The message had to be shared a different way. There would not have been a civil rights movement without meetings in churches and long marches and leaders at every event to spread the word.
I will never not be inspired by Martin Luther King. As a child, learning what he achieved, and what it cost him and so many others, touched me. Reading his words, listening to his speeches now, always move me profoundly. Perhaps this is partly because I do finally see him more clearly as just a human being, like me, and this gives me courage and hope for the social justice work I’m involved in, even as it humbles me.
Here is the “I Have a Dream” speech, “live” from the March on Washington, August 1963.