I asked my students what they thought having a Martin Luther King Jr. assembly meant, and what they thought the man stood for. The first responses were that it was cool to have a day off. I cringed. And against my better judgment told them what I thought — that:
• What we don't read in the school texts is that a good portion of American society hated and feared what Martin Luther King Jr. stood for. That he was labeled a traitor and a communist because he opposed militarism and the Vietnam War (among other things). A good portion of American society still feels that way; they have just learned not to say it (in public, anyway).
• One cannot stand on one side of the political fence and claim to have respect for Martin Luther King Jr., because he stood for far more than simply an end to racism and segregation. One cannot separate the political and social ideals, they are part of the same package.
• Actions speak louder than words. It's not what you say, it's what you do that counts. So when, as a nation, we have leaders who denounce affirmative action as regressive policy, then we have leaders who have a limited understanding of the roots of racial divides. If we have a business community that has statistically proven its unwillingness to judge by content of character, rather than color of skin, then we have not made social progress. In fact, the case can be made that if we think that giving a day of recognition is sufficiently honoring Martin Luther King Jr.'s ideals (without the actions to support them also), then the day simply becomes an appeasement — a Band-Aid that does not treat the symptoms.
• There's nothing wrong with feeling a little guilty that you are white. Because you do have it easier, you do experience less judgment, you do have a better chance of getting: a good education, a good job, a good house. Is it your fault? No. But when we are able to admit that we have advantages, we can apply that guilt constructively to leveling the playing field. We have a moral obligation to do this in our lives. That is, if we believe what the Declaration of Independence says about all men being created equal.
And then I encourage them to read and think about a poster I have on my wall, from a May 1967 speech. King says:
"We have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights, an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We have been in a reform movement. But after seeing Selma and the voting rights bill, we moved into a new era, which must be the era of revolution. We must recognize that we can't solve our problem now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power ... this means a revolution of values and other things. We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation and militarism are all tied together ... you can't really get rid of one without getting rid of the others... the whole structure of American life must be changed. America is a hypocritical nation and (we) must put (our) own house in order."
So as a nation, we pretend that the man stood for justice, but we don't want that justice if it means giving up our own gluttonous slice of the American pie. Martin Luther King Jr. means about as little to the powers that be as do Jefferson, Madison and Franklin.
Jason Call of Everett teaches math at Kamiak High School in Mukilteo.