Martin Luther King day is the only Monday holiday I’ve ever felt inclined to celebrate or actually give thought to as anything outside of an extra day of weekend indulgences.
As one who always felt a passion for the civil rights movement and for black American people and communities, growing up I felt a blind love for Martin Luther King Jr. I didn’t know many details about him or his life or even his work. I just knew he stood for something I cared deeply about. And, for me, that was enough. For white folks growing up in white circles who wanted to have some sort of connection with black people and black history, Dr. King was really all we had. He was our access point. His writings were allowed in our curriculums and textbooks, his picture acceptable for our classrooms and school hallways. His Christian-ness and non-violent tactics praised in church communities. I carried my devotion to him proudly. It (regrettably) took many, years to move past my sheerly symbolic love for Dr. King. It’s been a beautiful gift getting to know this man I always loved from afar. So today, on this day of remembering him and the spirit he left us, I thought I’d share some memorable parts of this journey.
My college friend Carlos knew of my love for Dr. King and he excitedly gifted me a shirt he’d received at an MLK day event. The shirt bore a giant picture of Dr. King’s face and I couldn’t have been more pleased. I wore it often, most especially on his holiday every year.
I started grad school for my Masters in Social Work. One of my first group assignments was to present about the organizing movements of the 1960’s. We read aloud from Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. I’m sure I had read it before but never had I really ingested its weight. For those of you unfamiliar, this is one of the most eloquent, highbrow “clap backs” ever written, and to white, Southern Christians at that (which, I have to admit, gives me a little extra satisfaction).
But King’s words were more than that to me, particularly at this time in my life. I was learning (and confused by) what it meant to be radical, what it meant to stand for social justice–reconciling my fairly straight-laced, conservative, southern, religious upbringing with the east coast “liberal” kids around me who wore rainbows and went to marches with their parents. As bizarre as this sounds coming from a blonde haired white girl, I realized that Martin Luther King was someone who “looked” like me. He dressed like the men in my family. He carried a brief case like my dad. He went to church. He quoted the Bible. He was tight with his family. He was from the south.
And yet his words were biting. Scalding. Berating. They sounded polite. But they were fierce and unapologetic. They were unaccepting of the current state of affairs. MLK was a radical freedom fighter disguised as a middle class suburban dad. He was probably the closest I’d come to someone who “looked” like me doing the work I wanted to do and saying the things I was too afraid to say. He gave me more courage to be myself in a place I’m not from—to celebrate my roots as a source of pride and not something to hide; to use my aesthetic and my person as a tool, a point of connection; to be unashamedly mainstream and unashamedly radical. Dr. King gave (and continues to give) me the courage to be “both” and “all”.
At the end of grad school, I had the honor of being selected to go on a civil rights bus tour culminating in Jackson, MS, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. We stopped at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, TN where we watched a powerful short film called “The Witness”. It documented Dr. King’s final days and hours before his assassination through the eyes of Reverend Billy Kyles, who bore witness to King’s last moments. Watching this film affirmed for me that Dr. King’s work and his power were real, not something I had just made up as a naïve young white girl. Even those closest to him saw something of a divine prophet in him. Says Rev. Kyles about witnessing King’s final speech: “He was so overcome we had to help him to his seat. He had preached himself through the fear of death.”
The museum sits at the site of the former Lorraine hotel in Memphis, TN where Dr. King died. My two colleagues, Stan and Lizzy, and I found a seat outside directly across the balcony where he was shot outside room 306. Stan had ordered peach cobbler to-go from a famous local spot. As we traded bites, we were gifted a beautiful sunset and Stan noted that the spirit of the ancestors were with us in this moment. We all agreed that if Dr. King had any say over how he was celebrated, sunsets and peach cobbler would definitely be a the top of his list.