Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Lessons to be Learned

With so much of my attention focused on the actions the Butler administration keeps directing toward me, at times I almost forget the fact that I’m a student. Then I read something for a class that really helped me to remember what college is supposed to be about. I want to make it clear from the beginning that I'm not comparing myself to Dr. King nor am I comparing my situation to the struggle that characterized much of the 20th century: I simply aim to point out that many of his teachings are still very applicable, in a variety of places and situations, today.

Recently, I had the opportunity to read some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s writings and they really moved me. Like so many great writers and impressive leaders, Dr. King was able to craft arguments that went far beyond the specific instance he was writing about. One of those pieces was his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16, 1963. He wrote this open letter after being arrested for participating in a protest against racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.

He said, in part, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

He went on to say, “You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?’ You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

And he said, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

The racial justice he was fighting for, and for which so many are still fighting, is absolutely essential if we are to live in a fair and equitable society. His words are so incredibly powerful because they teach us about all sorts of injustice – and how to fight those injustices. Even more importantly, his words explain why we must fight against injustice when we see it.

President Bill Clinton quoted Dr. King on March 5, 2000 when he was in Selma, Alabama commemorating the 35th anniversary of the 1965 voting rights march. President Clinton chose to quote words Dr. King wrote in 1962, “It is history's wry paradox that when Negroes win their struggle to be free, those who have held them down will themselves be free for the first time."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been gone for over 40 years but his words still have much to teach us about injustice and the remarkable benefits that occur for all when injustice is finally overcome.

I wish that many in our community, and beyond, could learn the lessons that Dr. King was preaching.

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