living tribute

I learned of Martin Luther King, the hero of the Civil Rights Movement, in school.
I learned of Martin Luther King, the peacemaker, at church.

In both cases I learned about King as an icon. He was like an angel-man, superhuman. King became a real person when I moved to Atlanta.

It was a fall from a pedestal of sorts, when I learned about all of the trials, the fractures, the tribulations, the anguish, and the arguments that went on behind the scenes of the marches and the committee meetings. To listen to lectures by the veterans of the movement, (Former Ambassador Andrew Young, Rev. Joseph Lowery, R. D. Abernathy, Rev. James Orange) all still involved, but some bitter, some who have appropriated the movement…whew! I learned about the hundreds of sidelined and under-recognized women who laid the groundwork for so many of the church meetings, boycotts, and potlucks (Septima Clark, Montgomery Women’s Council, Ella Baker, Ruby Doris Smith Robinson). Most of all, when I saw the struggle of his immediate family to know how to live out the legacy of the father they lost when they were young children, it all became so tangible.

After an internship at the King Center for Social Change, an intense antiwar work during the build up to Iraq, I began to appreciate the C R Movement’s humanity, and its accessibility. Listening to the stories of these elders, and then seeing these stories replayed in the contemporary antiwar movement helped me to make the connections across generations. I could march, I could go to meetings and debate tactics, I could participate. So I did, and here are some of my observations:

It was often said in Atlanta that King was assassinated because he began to combine movements. He no longer just challenged racial inequality, but spoke about racism’s connections with militarism and materialism. He was killed when he was in Memphis to support the garbage workers, who were fighting to rise out of poverty, a class battle. Conservative Black people became uncomfortable with this connective analysis, as did the US government (they stepped up their espionage and movement sabotage efforts).

Many activists today (and some activists back then) however, appreciate the way King made a journey towards connecting movements and issues. Black feminism is based in the recognition that there are exclusionary societal forces such as racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia, and that these multiple oppressions interface with one another. In order to be effective then, members of social movements must be willing to hold these together with what is called an intersectional analysis.

Which comes back to my earlier point of saying:
I learned of Martin Luther King, the hero of the Civil Rights Movement, in school.
I learned of Martin Luther King, the peacemaker, at church.

At school, it was important to be happy that Black, White, Latino, Indigenous, and Asian kids could learn together, but we must be patriotic, and not want to grow up to question the imperialism of our nation or oppose the wars which its materialism and militarism instigates or in which we are involved.

At my predominately White-ethnic Mennonite church however, we celebrated the fact that MLK was nonviolent, in interpersonal action and with regards to the Vietnam War. We didn’t focus on the fact that there were only 4 black people (2 adopted children) in our church (out of 200 total people) which is located in the middle of a neighborhood of 300 Black families, and now 350 Latino families. We appreciated that he stood for the inclusion of all, but we were not willing to make necessary changes in our worship and lifestyles to find common ground with our neighbors.

I have been involved at both the school and church level to try to change these realities, and embrace the intersectional vision of the Civil Rights Movement/Black feminist movements more fully. We have made strides. On a larger scope, there is more possibility to impact society and collaborate transnationally if members of social movements are willing to operate with an intersectional analysis in mind and practice. For you and I, this means not only dealing with the parts of social justice movements that we like, but challenging ourselves and institutions, like schools and churches of which we are a part to do the hard work at home.

Comments (3)

  1. Hootsbuddy

    Your message is an encouragement to me. It is good to know that young people are still digging deeper into the history of the Civil Rights movement than just the surface. It is easy with the passing of time to gloss over the human part of what took place, the conpromises taking hours, days of argument before any direct action could take place. Even then there were elements of both “sides” that said things were moving too fast, or too slow.

    The assasinations of King and the two Kennedies in the short span of a few years were together a wake-up call that solidified the movement. In those cases, tragedy begat faster results. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was, if anything, a tribute to the memory of JFK, and the subsequent killings of King and Robert Kennedy only a few months apart four years later galvanized the political will as nothing else might have done.

    In the case of your own Mennonite tradition, it is good to broaden awareness, even participation of a broader range of people. But handle with care the core values of your faith. We live in a time when small congregations are in danger of being swept into oblivion by a swollen and growing number of mega-churches with little theological depth. Peace, non-violence and reconcilliation are practiced and taught by traditional “peace churches” which have always been an endangered species, so do all in your power to keep those core values secure. Others may pay lip service, but those who live those values are few and far between.

  2. ST

    thanks. our church was located in an impoverished part of the city. the blacks and latinos i was talking about were people who lived out some of the distinctive tenets you mention, in their everyday life. grannys made choices that reduced violence by helping to entertain grandchildren while parents were still at work. young adults used their common sense to intervene in fights between young teenagers going on in the alley behind the church. reconciliation, and community action by neighbors who were competing for the few resources there were in the social service pot was visible. there was and is still room for all of these expressions of peacemaking, whether they were in vietnam or at home. our neighbors were doing it, but not in ways in which my church wanted to collaborate. the message at home is sometimes harder to implement then supporting a message of peace abroad. also, when i studied the civil rights movement in school, i learned that overall, white mennonite churches did not participate in active support, and so were part of the silent majority, or the white moderate as king noted.

    i believe, the way we “keep our core values secure” is by sharing them and witnessing them with our daily lives.

    thanks for your comments!

  3. Brian Hamilton

    Thanks for these beautifully and powerfully put reminders. You’ve penetrated precisely the ways we have already domesticated so recent a movement.

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