Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Martin Luther King, a rabble-rousing civil disobedient, is now an American national hero.  This statement is obvious.  It is fact.  But, the lionization of MLK in America today elevates him beyond simply the level of hero. For the vast majority of the country, he is part of a even more exclusive pantheon of great Americans.   Paradoxically, we can see this by the use, and misuse, of MLK’s name and memory.

Watch the news.  Listen to the political talk-show hacks.  Use C-Span to spy on Congress as they argue over some arcane issue.  If Martin Luther King’s name comes up in any of these arenas, it is usually because someone12583152-standard is calling upon his memory to harden their argument into a moral imperative.  Or, alternatively, MLK’s memory and beliefs will be used to differentiate a political enemy’s ideals from those of the great Civil Rights leader. In other words, a sanitized, sanctified version of Martin Luther King has become a political weapon.  ‘What Would MLK say/think about this?” constantly gets thrown out into the public realm, leading to such ridiculously unanswerable questions as “what would MLK think about assault weapon bans?,’ or, ‘what would MLK believe about the Chick-Fil-A boycott’!  The best question, but the one that is never asked is, ‘What would Martin Luther King think about all these ‘What Would MLK think’ queries?”

Though sometimes absurd, or even distasteful, this usage of MLK’s message and life places him into exclusive company.  Only a handful of American historical figures are appropriated by the political left and right in this way. In fact, only the nation’s ‘founders’ are called upon as often as King and his legacy.

FoundersWhen the moniker ‘the founders’ gets thrown around in today’s political culture, it usually refers to a small sampling of men who signed the Declaration of Independence, fought the Revolution, and created the Constitution. Though usually not stated outright, it is safe to assume Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Franklin are the big six.  Though historians will tell you that these men disagreed constantly and vociferously about the the meaning of America, twenty-first century Americans gloss over such complexities.  When ‘the founders’ are spoken of as a homogeneous bunch, it is usually to justify our political proclivities, or attack political enemies.  “What would the founders say about Obamacare?” “What would the founders think about waterboarding?” Picking and choosing the quotes of Jefferson, or Franklin that suit their needs, media personalities and political figures utilize ‘the founders’ to fight today’s political battles.

MLK is now part of this national pantheon. But, in one way at least, MLK is an even more evocative symbol than Jefferson, Adams or Washington. King’s image and visage resonates so brightly not just because of his life, but also his death.  Unlike ‘the founders’, MLK is a national martyr.  He died for what we understand today as being the best of American ideals.  Though ‘the founders’ fought to create the nation, and their lives were often in danger, none of them made the greatest sacrifice for the new republic.  (Of course, Hamilton is the exception. He died a martin-luther-king-jr-in-front-of-lincoln-memorialrelatively young man in a violent manner, killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. But, to our twenty-first century eyes, this death, though romantic, was not for the nation, but only for Hamilton’s individual pride and honor.) Most of the first generation of American heroes passed away quietly in their beds. They had cleared their own, and the nation’s hurdles, while alive.  They lived to see their dreams made real. MLK died before he reached his ‘promised land.’

But, martyrs die so that others may live.  Martyrology means that King’s death caused our collective rebirth. This places MLK in an even more exclusive club.  It could be argued there is only one other member: Abraham Lincoln.  Both King and Lincoln fit the definition of martyrs as they both died so that others could thrive and survive.  Both American heroes foresaw the future far before their contemporaries, and died for this prescience.

As our nation is at fault for the death of these two men, the least we can do is celebrate their births. 

By Tricia Lunt, English Faculty.

For the past ten years or so, I have been working on creating the perfect guest list for a dinner party in the afterlife.

I’ve decided to limit it to a party of six, mostly because my friend and restaurant manager extraordinaire Leah has informed me that is the best number of guests.

Once I settle in to the afterlife and establish a routine, my first obstacle will be determining the finest restaurants, and whether or not food is consumed. I’m hopeful that the film Defending Your Life

Epictetusis correct in the expectation that dead people can eat all they like and never gain weight. Once I’m sure I can get a good table, I plan to send elegant invitations to my carefully selected guests:

Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus

English satirist Jonathan Swift 250px-Jonathan_Swift_by_Charles_Jervas_detail

English novelist Jane Austen

American Humorist Mark Twain

And American social activist Martin Luther King, Jr.

These five illustrious guests, plus myself, will certainly create sparkling conversation, an idyllic party of six to liven up the tedium of death.

Like any good host, I was careful when selecting my guests. Although I wanted to include some favorite visual artists, they can be prickly. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to meet Picasso for drinks, but something tells me he’d get too drunk at dinner and offend Jane Austen, either physically, verbally, or both. Most of the other artists whose work I admire tend to be reclusive, difficult, or downright weird. Another guest I initially considered including was Oscar Wilde, but I suspect he’d want to dominate the conversation all night. After he’d interrupted Epictetus for the third time, laughing eagerly at his own wit, we’d all end up rolling our eyes in Wilde’s direction. And, while I love music, my knowledge in this area is limited, and I’m afraid any notable musician might want to talk about music at great depth all the while subtly insulting everyone else’s musical taste. I mean, I know it’s not technically good, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let Schubert tell me ABBA’s oeuvre is worthless.

Jane-Austen-9192819-1-402This dinner party offers so much potential enjoyment. Like so many of her devoted readers, I am truly interested in Jane Austen the woman. She is reported to have been funny and friendly, and while not 1289926514-Mark Twainbeautiful, attractive and charming enough to be excellent company. I don’t know if she and Twain will have already settled their differences related to his rather stinging remarks, but I imagine the two of them could get along quite well in the right circumstances, and I am fairly certain she could match him in conversation. As the daughter of a preacher, Austen will have no trouble talking doctrine with the Reverends Swift and King. I suspect that the inclusion of so many religious thinkers would amuse my mother, who thinks I’m past help afterlife-speaking, but once dead, all speculation will be revealed as either truth or fiction, so I expect to have a good laugh one way or the other. Epictetus might seem like the odd man at the table, but his pragmatic approach to philosophy will be just what we need if Twain gets spiteful, Swift gets preachy, or Austen flirts too disgracefully with Martin Luther King, Jr.

mlk

My guest list thus perfected, I am now content to spend the rest of my terrestrial life contemplating the details. Naturally, I’d want to sit and talk to any one of these remarkably complex, deeply fascinating, and meaningfully productive individuals one-on-one, but the fun of the dinner would offer the added pleasure of watching them interact with one another. Here’s hoping the afterlife is BYOB.

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

I am writing this on Wednesday, August 28th, 2013. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  All month long, NPR has been running stories about the ‘March on Washington’ and King’s timeless speech to commemorate, and investigate what happened that week in 1963, and to ask how far we as a nation and people have come in the fifty years since.  This 7 minute radio interview that was aired a couple weeks ago is an enthralling example NPR’s coverage.  It is the tale of Robert Avery, who at 15 hitchhiked from Alabama to DC in order to be a part of the March.  Take some time, and listen to his incredible story.

Robert Avery.  Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

Robert Avery. Click on the weblink below to listen to his story.

http://www.npr.org/2013/08/14/210470828/determined-to-reach-1963-march-teen-used-thumb-and-feet

What an experience! Two poor, country kids with big dreams and determination make their way across a rapidly changing nation, meeting on the way some wonderful Americans, all the while getting a glimpse of American racial hatred. Sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood script. But, it is a real tale; one I plan to use this week in my American History course as we are just beginning to investigate the Civil Rights movement.

march_on_washington_2

All these people were heroes.

I have a feeling that the hardest hitting moment in Avery’s story will probably be the most incomprehensible to my 18 year old students.  In actuality, as a 37 year old historian, I have a hard time grasping it as well.  My students and I live in the post-Civil Rights era; an epoch created by Americans such as Avery. We have only experienced a nation in which the vast majority of citizens, even obvious racists, distance themselves from racism as a concept.  Thus, the outspoken racism that Avery faced in 1963 takes us aback.  It is shocking that fifty years ago many Americans openly accepted racism; or that for some, racism was a worldview held with pride.  Avery illustrates this world with his recollections of 1963 Virginia.  He matter-of-factly remembered that as he and the African-American family he was riding with neared DC, and,

…drove through the mountains, they saw black effigies hanging outside service stations. “You know, the dummies that they hang out, the Rebel flags … hanging from light posts and whatever,” Avery recalls. “That wasn’t sending a signal, that was sending a strong message … So they went to a lot of care to make them to make sure that people understood you can’t stop here and buy gas.”

If you listen to the interview, you can hear Michele Norris stop Avery, with a bit of shock in her voice, and ask him to explain what he means by “effigies hanging outside of gas stations.”  Avery calmly answers her question, providing evidence that such symbols of hatred were normal in the days of Jim Crow.  This was a society that was staunchly racist; justice was by no means blind.  Avery’s attendance at the March on Washington fell on the wrong side of the law.  Actually, the ideas shared during the March would have been illegal in  Jim Crow Mississippi, where,

Any person…who shall be guilty of printing, publishing or circulating printed, typewritten or written matter urging or presenting for public acceptance or general information, arguments or suggestions in favor of social equality or of intermarriage between whites and negroes, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to fine or not exceeding five hundred (500.00) dollars or imprisonment not exceeding six (6) months or both.

Racist notions that are rarely mentioned in polite private company today, were often spoken in public with no embarrassment in 1963 America. The infamous words of the Virginia trial judge that found Richard and Mildred Loving guilty of interracial marriage prove the point. In reading the verdict against the husband and wife, Judge Leon Bazile stated that,

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.

These words sound like they come from the distant past. In reality, the sentence against the Lovings was passed in 1959.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

A Virginia Judge found the Lovings guilty because of this.

These few examples (and there are countless more) illustrate how pernicious American racism was within recent, living memory.  Luckily for myself, and my students, this is not our personal memory. These events are a part of history books; these ideas are depicted in movies.  We are lucky for that, but we should be cautious. Many Americans today rely on self-delusion, ludicrously claiming we live in some utopian, post-racial society. They paint the March on Washington with the brushstrokes of the ancient past.  It is my job, and all of our jobs, to correct this misconception. In a blink of an eye, 50 years have passed; the memories have faded for many, but the scars of that era are still quite fresh. Luckily we have men such as Robert Avery to remind us.