Monday, January 15, 2018

Book Spotlight: Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in A Testament of Hope

"Let me say that we have failed to say something to America enough. However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We have got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation. I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized, and until this is worked on."


Photo from Wikipedia.

It's no great secret that I love books.

I posted a roundup of my favorite reads last year here (previous roundups can be found by clicking here and here), and it's one of my favorite things to write about. Reading has been a passion of mine since I was a child, and no other practice has been more beneficial in opening my mind and my heart to continued growth and empathy.

Considering the many fraught events of the last year or two, I found myself feeling somewhat overwhelmed with all of the political noise. How could we ever climb out of this, I thought? How can we ever hope for a brighter day? Is all of our progress lost? How can I, an individual, do anything impactful to help solve these problems?

As a test to myself I decided to channel this angst into action and research by reading A Testament of Hope cover-to-cover. This hefty tome (clocking in at well over 600 pages) is a collection of almost every writing and speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Encompassing essays, letters, speeches, books and pamphlets, and interviews, the book is organized by type and provides a magnificent survey of the full philosophy of one of our nation's greatest heroes. It's the best place I could have channeled my energy last year, and I can safely say that now, exactly one year after I began this project, I have learned so much and gained so much wisdom from this text. I will certainly be revisiting it frequently going forward, but I wanted to summate some of my favorite lessons from the book. This year marks 50 years since King was killed and we have a lot of ground to make up; there's no better place to turn than the source itself to figure out how to get where we need to be.

1. White people need to do more to fix racism and racist policies. A lot more. Especially in the North. 

If there was a single takeaway that most impacted me personally it was this one. One of the major themes of King's work that we love to forget, particularly after he won the Nobel prize and had gained international fame, was his extreme disappointment with the lack of support for civil rights among white people, particularly Christians and political liberals. The single biggest factor in slowing the march of progress of the Civil Rights Movement was the lack of initiative in the white community to speak out about obvious wrongs, challenge fellow white people on their racist beliefs, financially support the movement, demand that the political system change to one of true fairness, and most importantly to admit and apologize for the destructive racism that has poisoned America from day one. Black people didn't invent systemic racism, white people did, and until that cause/effect is directly addressed, our society will not be truly equitable. It is not enough to point fingers at "those rednecks" down South and pat ourselves on the back. Racism is pervasive, insidious, and takes many forms - even up in the great white North. We need to address those issues here just as urgently as Alabama had to tackle Jim Crow.

2. Dr. King was far more radical than anyone wants to admit. 

One of the reasons I felt so driven to read all of this book was that the true history of a person tends to get muddled or deformed as time passes, and I had a suspicion this was true of King. Turns out, I was right. King has become such a mythical figure in the collective American memory that his work is often distilled to a single, whitewashed quote - "I have a dream" - and the finer, more important points of his arguments are lost. It was extremely beneficial to fully submerge into his philosophy of nonviolence and harsh recriminations of the American system. The popular image of King might be a warm and fuzzy memory, but we'd be better off to remember the real, more pointed King, the King who went to jail, preached against war at all costs, and who approached American policy with unflinching honesty and unending grace in the truest sense of that term.

3. Racism hurts everyone, not just black people. 

The systemic inequalities facing our society have trickle down effects that end up affecting all of us. Whether it's watching our neighbors suffer while we look on, to enabling class exploitation or simply reducing the tax base through unfair wages, every American citizen is impacted by our racist laws and policies. We are all in this together and acknowledging that shared burden is the only way we're going to fix these massive problems.

4. Real persistence can get you anywhere, even with a small amount of resources. 

It's highly instructive to revisit success stories like the Montgomery bus boycott. It can feel overwhelming to work in a social movement - where will you find money to promote your cause? How will you convince people to join your cause? If the power structure has no incentive to change, how can you convince them to? The Montgomery boycott was effective because everyone participated, it was never broken - despite extreme personal sacrifices on the part of many who had very little - and it made an enormous financial impact to the city's bottom line. Had any of those elements failed (and they almost did), the boycott itself would have failed as so many before it. Good organization and clear demands can get you a very long way, so it's important not to get caught up in the trappings of fundraising or political infighting to the neglect of specifying your goals and consistently following through on your promised actions.

5. We have more in common than we don't. 

Perhaps the most powerful gift King had was the ability to gently remove prejudices and stereotypes to help people find common ground. Reading his interviews to diverse cross-sections of audiences, from African-Americans to Jews to Southern and Northern White America, he was a master at making his arguments seem personally impactful. None of the achievements King is known for could have happened without a supportive base, and I'm hard-pressed to think of another person who was so able to truly unite such a broad cross-section of society. King was not a popular man even at the height of his work - his approval ratings never exceeded 45% of the population until after his death - but he still managed to draw an intriguing group of dedicated volunteers from key demographics who made a huge impact with very few resources.

I'd like to leave you with some quotes from the last piece of A Testament of Hope, a short book King wrote called the Trumpet of Conscience. It's one of the last pieces he published and so extraordinarily timely that I hard a hard time not copying the entire document. You can find links to the full text here, and it's worth grabbing a copy if you're able. I hope you all have some meditations and actions of resistance to celebrate the life of Dr. King today; I know I will be finding ways to participate on my own as well.

"Let me say that we have failed to say something to America enough. However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We have got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation. I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized, and until this is worked on. [...]

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom. [...] This generation is engaged in a cold war, not only with the earlier generation, but with the values of its society. It is not the familiar and normal hostility of the young groping for independence. It has a new quality of bitter antagonism and confused anger which suggests basic issues are being contested. [...]

The tempest of evils provides the answer for those adults who ask why this young generation is so unfathomable, so alienated, and frequently so freakish. For the young people of today, peace and social tranquility are as unreal and remote as knight-errantry. […] Ironically, their rebelliousness comes from having been frustrated in seeking change within the framework of the existing society. […] Their radicalism is growing because the power structure of today is unrelenting in defending not only it social system but the evils it contains; so, naturally, it is intensifying the opposition. [...]

Of course, by now it is obvious that new laws are not enough. The emergency we now face is economic, and it is a desperate and worsening situation. For the 35 million poor people in America – not even to mention, just yet, the poor in the other nations – there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. You are in substance saying to that man that he has no right to exist. You are in a real way depriving him of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, denying in his case the very creed of his society. Now, millions of people are being strangled in that way. The problem is international in scope. And it is getting worse, as the gap between the poor and the “affluent society” increases. [...]

As a minister, I take prayer too seriously to use it as an excuse for avoiding work and responsibility. When a government commands more wealth and power than has ever before been known in the history of the world, and offers no more than this, it is worse than blind, it is provocative. [...]

The dispossessed of this nation – the poor, both white and Negro – live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against that injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. [...]

In a world facing the revolt of ragged and hungry masses of God’s children; in a world torn between the tensions of East and West, white and colored, individualists and collectivists; in a world whose cultural and spiritual power lags so far behind her technological capabilities that we live each day on the verge of nuclear co-annihilation; in this world, nonviolence is no longer and option for intellectual analysis, it is an imperative for action."