Monday, October 17, 2011

He freed a nation

Last night, I caught glimpses of coverage of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication. I saw a few seconds of President Obama speaking, a few of the King family, and a few of Al Sharpton. I haven't really paid close attention to the news regarding the memorial, although I do remember reading an article or editorial that questioned the idea of using white stone as the medium - as if that was somehow making Dr. King into a white man. Not sure how I feel about that - I can see that it could be offensive, and yet, to me personally it doesn't make Dr. King "white," it's just stone. The memorial itself is what is important. What did strike me last night, however, was that the credit for all of the civil rights movement and the positive changes it brought seemed to be laid exclusively at Dr. King's feet.

I'm not African American. I'm as white as you can get - with most of my ancestry from Europe, and mostly western at that. Maybe that means for some people that I don't really have a valid opinion about the Dr. King memorial, but I tend to disagree. As an American, I think I still get to voice my opinion even if the work of Dr. King did not benefit me directly (although I do think his work benefited all Americans, because whenever we sideline a group of people in society, we hurt ourselves more than we ever realize). Anyway, I'm a little uncomfortable with the tone and actual statements that were made about King. I believe it was Sharpton who said, something like, "This one man freed a nation." And the overall tone was that Dr. King was the man responsible for all the changes - for the overturn of Jim Crow laws. For everything.

I have a problem with that. As much as I admire who Dr. King was and what he did, I can NEVER believe that he acted completely alone. Yes, he was the face of the movement. Yes, he was the right and only person who could have spurred the action and results. I don't deny that. But still, do we not have to acknowledge ALL the people who took action during those days? Without the people who listened to Dr. King, those who then took action, those who were already taking action before Dr. King even started to speak publicly, those who came long before Dr. King was even born, without all of them, I firmly believe NOTHING would have changed. Without thousands of people taking stands, small though they may have been, our nation may still be wrestling the the whole idea of slavery itself, even.

I don't deny we need to celebrate the life of Dr. King. It's critical. I strongly support a memorial and the national observance of his birthday. Yet, I wonder, when will we acknowledge others? Like Fredrick Douglas? Like Harriet Tubman? Like all the other heroes who came before? When will we realize that every person plays an important role in the effort to change the world?

Okay, all right, maybe it's just me, but I'd love for us to someday acknowledge that anyone who moves forward against the norm, yet toward what is just, right and pure takes risks. They put their life on the line in a way. They sacrifice. How about the woman who had to walk miles to work every day during the famous bus boycotts, putting the "cause" in some ways in front of her family's immediate needs, this woman who just kept walking, that's all she did. Don't know her name? Yeah, neither do I, and that's part of my point.

It wasn't just Dr. King. It wasn't just Rosa Parks. It was that every day person - the slave who ran away, the Underground Railroad home owner who helped slaves, the maid who walked to work, the student who went to what used to be an all-white school. It was all of them. Every single one. They all have stories. And for what it's worth, I'm really interested in those stories - I've heard Dr. King's. Now tell me about the people that Dr. King inspired, because personally, those every day people who make simple decisions that may hopefully change the world, those are the people I want to be like.

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