Thinking About MLK

I am a historian and a philosopher and even still, I am not quite sure how one is supposed to provide commentary on the life and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His life, his beliefs, his philosophies and his actions pale in comparison with most other people that I have ever read or known. His breadth of knowledge with the depth of incite is intimidating and nearly unfathomable. He is truly a man worth respect and reverence and over the last year has increasing become a hero that I have looked to for guidance in my own personal struggles for justice.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book “Why We Can’t Wait,” is not only a history and a primary source document, but also a road map displaying how to unite people and to contend with a system of injustice. It was illuminating to read that even he was not always sure of himself and that from time to time he was confronted with doubt, that even he felt alone, and he also had to remove himself to pray to be sure that he was doing the right things for the right reasons. His words also revealed that there were times when he was not sure of the outcome, for example, when he was confronted with running out of bail funds, but had made a public commitment to face arrest (King, p. 80). He decided at that moment, after a period of contemplation to live and act in faith, trusting that his actions would lead to a favorable outcome and that his actions were in the best interests of the people and the movement. I have felt the aloneness that he describes. I have felt the weight of my decisions and how those decisions will bear on the lives of others, not as many people as his did, but many people nonetheless.  In many ways, this period of reflection that I am engaged in currently is precisely one of those moments; namely, I am seeking to reconcile my actions with my moral set of beliefs, which both coincide with the justice we are fighting for. The lessons I draw from this portion of his story regard trust, faith, and honoring of one’s promises.

 

Something else that was incredibly striking about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was his keen awareness of both people and group political and social leanings, strengths and weaknesses. I am not sure how he was able to keep all of that in his head, but he was acutely knowledgeable of how particulars might respond to a given event, act or statement. This was true not only in his local vicinity, but also nationally and this includes Congress and the White House. He was able to perceive a clear line to maneuver through all of these lines to a satisfactory outcome, to know what strings to pull to get people to respond favorably to him and the demands of the people. He was able to draw out of people and groups the reaction that he desired by applying pressure at just the right point and at the right time. He did this while seemingly cognizant of how all the groups and people would interact as the drama unfolded and I am left in awe and mystified that he was able to accomplish this. I have watched as countless people have attempted to do something similar to this and fail miserably. Either, because they have misjudged a person’s character or intent, or because they have not considered all the variables that were involved in a particular situation or campaign.

 

I have watched how some group or individual has responded favorably only to conflict with another who has moved in another and unexpected direction. Most importantly, King was very clever at getting people to the negotiation table and that is something that in most of the activism work, which has included much direct action that we have not been able to accomplish. It is my belief that the reason for this is because we have not analyzed the situation clearly enough to identify sufficient targets, we have not applied the right type of pressure, and most important, we have not had a specific set of demands from which people could form an agreement to.  King displayed the list of demands that the actions in Birmingham sought to have answered and adhered to by the merchants and the politicians (King, p. 122). A unified body of people, unified in purpose, although, not always in tactic, but nonetheless, united, also backed these demands.  When the business owners of Birmingham witnessed the volume of people they were contending with in their unified stand, they recognized that the movement was not just a passing phase that could be ignored, but that for the sake of their community must be respected and thus, the demands were negotiated and an agreement was made (King, p. 125). It is my belief that these are also characteristics that the Black Lives Matter movement here in Seattle has been lacking and that I have been meditating on. Again, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has become the hero that I am looking to for guidance as I contemplate how to move forward in our struggle for justice. Needless to say, I have a lot to think about and a lot to learn.

 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands out as a shining beacon of justice in a dark night of despair. He stands out because unlike so many that I have met, he never seemed to lose faith in humanity and always seemed to find the glimmer of it in everyone, no matter how much evil they had participated in during their time on earth.  It is humbling to see such compassion and forgiveness in one individual. It is inspiring to see that it is possible to fight for just not having to be locked into either/or thinking, but that it is possible to live and thrive in the flexible and nuanced region of both/and thinking. It is refreshing to know that my hero was also human and susceptible to doubt and to fault and, to have the courage to work through those shortcomings.

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