Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
I woke up this morning with an awareness that I haven’t had in years past. This holiday that exists to commemorate a man who dedicated himself to a cause that affects me daily, used to mean little more to me than a day when schools were closed, checks wouldn’t clear, and I would participate with very little hesitation as friends would make jokes about this being the day of “my people.” No more. Today, I appreciate the struggle, and I recognize that we are still chasing the dream that Dr. King’s famed speech encouraged America to embrace.
As I sit in a local coffee shop, drinking my fancy coffee with half syrup (I’m trying to be healthier), I am processing how my experience as a biracial woman in the center of Ohio has been impacted by those who fought and endured the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. I’m reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and I cry as I identify with his sadness over the realization that most people will never understand the gravity of wearing his skin. Coates words reverberated through me and echoed off the walls I have placed within myself to withstand the unavoidable callousness of the world, “And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like blanket. But this has never been an option because the dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world…I was sad…” One of the things I struggle to express is the seeming paradox of knowing I live in a country that affords me many privileges (i.e. fancy coffee and free wifi), while also knowing that there are inherent privileges from which I was disqualified upon birth.
I mistakenly thought that the burdens of my pigmentation would be alleviated upon leaving my small town school. As I moved into adulthood, direct racial slurs and obvious discrimination were replaced by micro aggressions and easily dismissed undertones. This way of life I had learned to accept as a child, was dished out to me in a way that seemed much more palatable. I remember how the murder of Trayvon Martin threatened to shake my false comfort. The news reports stirred something within me, but I was surrounded by people whose teenagers looked dramatically different than the slain young man; their unshaken lives reminded me I should not be troubled by it. How stealthily the expectations of others can influence us.
Dr. King said many things that have inspired people from the time they were spoken up to today, but lately I keep coming back to the open letter that he wrote from a Birmingham jail in response to religious leaders who felt his actions were “unwise and untimely.” The familiarity of that sentiment resonates deeply within me.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
I think of the present Black Lives Matter movement and the discomfort, disbelief, and even anger that it seems to evoke from so many white people. These negative reactions range from strangers on the internet to beloved family and friends. Their words and attitudes rub against my being like the scraping of an old wound that never healed. I wonder how Dr. King would feel about the the way that the current cry for equality is so often met with aggressive denial. More so, I wonder how painfully he would receive the apathy that still so strongly pervades the majority of our society. I think about how his non-violent efforts in the Civil Rights Movement were also denounced as unfounded and inappropriate because of the destructive actions of some of the angry black men and women who were fed up with being oppressed. When King led a march on March 28, 1968 as a demonstration in support of sanitation workers, the police in Memphis beat the peaceful protestors in response to the rioting of men not associated with the march. I wonder if the media attributed the looting and vandalism of this separate group of black youth to the movement.
Many believed that the Civil Rights Movement achieved its goal upon the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but Dr. King and his fellow activists knew their work was far from done. When he was assassinated in April 1968, King was hard at work organizing his Poor People’s Campaign. His commitment to not stop pushing for equality until it was truly realized, leads me to believe that he would be presently engaged in the social justice movements of our time if he were still alive. I am personally inspired by the many people who shared a vision with Dr. King for an authentically united and equal society. Gone are the days in which I can ignore the reminders that so many see me as a substandard human being. For the sake of my children, for the sake of all people, I can no longer pretend I am blind to reality. “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”