While doing some light reading moments ago, I stumbled upon an article written for ThinkProgress by Aviva Shen. Called “4 Ways Martin Luther King Was More Radical Than You Thought,” the article highlights four radically progressive philosophies Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. subscribed to, ideas not radically progressive for the modern day (of which a couple of them are), but philosophies that would be considered especially radical for the mid-20th Century.
When I learned about Dr. King in school, the emphasis was minimal. I don’t know whether it’s a byproduct of growing up in Texas, but I do not recall learning anything about him other than his “I Have A Dream” at the March on Washington. He was barely a blurb in my history book. Come to think of it, the Civil Rights Movement as a whole was barely mentioned in my history textbooks. That’s shitty.
Anyway, when I come across writings and conversations about King and his ideals, I embrace them. I admire the man and respect him without question. He is one of the figures that has moved me in the direction of devoting my time, money, and effort into civil rights. So, when I came across Aviva Chen’s article and began reading, my eyes widened. I had no idea Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. pushed for a government guaranteed right to have a job, abhorred capitalism and materialism, and championed reproductive rights. Of course, after thinking for a moment, it made sense. For a man to wage a peaceful war against the bigotry, xenophobia, segregation, and the suppression of human and social rights that had been lobbied against blacks for hundreds of years, it only makes sense that those philosophies also correspond to similar ones that impact a wide variety of demographics.
Dr. King wasn’t just an African-American civil rights leader. He was a human rights leader.
Dr. King’s message and words have left a lasting impact on me, but not just because he crusaded to remove a poisonous injustice, but because of my own experiences. While as a white male I rarely have found myself on the receiving end of bigotry (although I have for being an atheist), I bore witness to an event in grade school that bothered me immensely. When I was in fifth grade, a white kid my age got into an altercation with a black kid a couple of grades behind us, to which the white kid called the black kid “a stupid little nigger” and told him to “go back to Africa.” At the time, I had no idea why I boiled with rage, but I did. The white kid’s words were hurtful, like linguistic daggers, and the black kid’s expression quickly faded into utter defeat, like those daggers had penetrated through and murdered his spirit. The black kid was reduced to tears and the white kid scoffed at them, walking away from the broken third-grader feeling accomplished and victorious. I didn’t really know what it was I saw, but I knew it was wrong.
Unfortunately, I did nothing about it, despite the fact I felt like I should have.
Conversations with my mother and my grandfather about the matter assisted me in labeling what I saw: racism. These conversations dove into history, politics, and even current events, and one of my biggest takeaways from them was something my grandfather said to me in tone as serious as I had ever heard escape his lips:
“Racism is a learned behavior. People are, inherently, without prejudice or bias. To hate someone and demonize someone for their skin color, or their religion, or anything along those lines, means that person was influenced by someone else to believe that way. One does not oppose color unless they are instructed to do so.”
— David L. Wolff
When I was a freshman in high school, the attacks on the World Trade Center took place. Unfortunately, because of that harrowing day, there were several kids in my school who found themselves on the receiving end of threats and violence at the hands of other students who were scared of what had happened and were without understanding. There was an incident in the hallways a couple of months after the attacks involving a few white students and another student whose family emigrated here from the Middle East. They were like bullies in an 80’s coming-of-age movie swarming around a nerd — slamming his books to the ground and displacing them about the hallway, shoving him into lockers, even threatening to kill him. While what I did, in hindsight, was not the brightest move I had ever made, I intervened violently after one of the white students punched the Middle Eastern student in the face. I thought of that little black boy in the hallway and how awful I felt that I had done nothing.
Of course, violence only breeds more violence, and at the time, King’s words had not had a profound impact upon me. I was also a 14-year-old little shit. My actions were impulsive and nonconstructive, especially considering I got my ass kicked and was suspended for a while because of it. However, even though my actions were poor, my intention, and subsequently my heart, was in the right place. But, resorting to violence distorted my intentions in the eyes of the men and women who held my fate in their hands. To them, I had started a fight, even though I was coming to the aid of student on the receiving end of bigoted harassment.
As I have evolved, my desire to help people and make a difference in the world has grown exponentially. I have listened to the words of orators, read the words of writers, and have studied history thoroughly. The passion for human rights and equality continues to burn inside of me, the flames fanned with each story and each thought I have. I ask myself: Why must we live in a world where some people are more free than others? Why must those that are of one religion feel justified in their hate of those who are of other religions and those who are not religious? Why must we live in a society where aspects of a variety of systems put some people at an institutional disadvantage to others? Why has there been little done to atone for the past? But most importantly, I ask myself: How do we change it?
We’ve made steps to change it, and change does not happen overnight. But the quest for true equality is an enduring one, one that cannot be dependent upon any one man, but must be celebrated by many, from all walks of life. I know my calling, and it is especially on this day, that I think about it and rejuvenate it.
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.