Dr. Martin Luther King

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Day. 

I wish I had the perfect words to write about how wonderful this man was, but I can't find words that are great enough. He was so humble that he probably wouldn't want people to put their time into describing his greatness. He would probably rather people spread the word about his ideas of peace and non-violence, and the importance of equality. 

Dr. Martin Luther King spent time in jail simply for having a peaceful protest. While in jail, he wrote an open letter titled "Letter from Birmingham Jail". In the letter, Dr. King wrote, "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

I didn't realize until I read "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in college what a difference we can make between simply silently disagreeing with something while doing nothing about it, versus disagreeing with something and DOING SOMETHING about it. 

I'm talking about those times in life when you know in your heart and soul that someone, or a group of people is treating someone, or a group of people, unfairly or mistreating them.

I remember during the summer before my final year of high school some friends and I went to a concert and then to a diner afterward. At the end of our meal, we stood in line at the counter to pay. While waiting in line, there were people standing in the waiting area behind us who were waiting to be seated. There were three young punk teenagers (a boy and two girls), who were a bit younger than me, and two big jocks, who were a bit older than me. I heard one of the jocks say to the young male punk, who had a flannel shirt tied around his waist, "What are you wearing? A dress?" 

I wasn't sure for a moment if they were all friends joking around with each other or if this was two separate groups of people.

The boy looked down and said nothing. He and his two female friends were all much shorter and smaller than the two big and tall jocks. One of the jocks then said to the boy, "What are you? A  girl?" 

The boy continued to look down, saying nothing. I realized that the jocks were not friends with the punks. I thought, "Are these two big jocks picking on this boy? Are they strangers? What's going on?" It took a moment to assess the situation, but I could suddenly FEEL the humiliation the boy was feeling. I understood that feeling very well because I had been bullied often in school, particularly during my middle school years. 

I wondered if the jocks would stop because the boy didn't react and fight back with them, but this didn't seem to make any difference.

One of the jocks started in again to the young punk, "What are you? A faggot? A faggot in a skirt?"

That was it for me. He flipped on a switch inside me that I didn't know existed. 

I turned around and said to the bully, "What is your problem? These people are just standing here waiting in line. They're not doing anything to you, and you keep harassing them. What is your problem?"

He responded by pointing to the young punk and saying, "Look at that guy! He's a faggot!"

I said, "You seem to be very obsessed with his sexuality. Are you gay?"

He started talking very fast and rambling on about how that guy must be gay. I said, "YOU must be gay if you go out of your way to point the finger at someone else like that to divert attention from yourself. Leave him alone!  Cut it out!"

At this point one of my friends had paid our bill with the money we had given him, and we all walked out the door past the group of people. I was practically shaking when we got outside, not because I was scared, but because I was so upset at witnessing an innocent boy being bullied who simply wanted to have a nice night out with his friends. Just at the moment that the thought entered my mind if it was wrong to "make a scene", two adults came out of the restaurant  and they stopped me to tell me they overheard everything and wanted to thank me for defending the boy. They said it was really wrong for him to be treated that way and they were glad I took the time to say something.

I didn't really feel like it was ME who said something though. Until that moment, I didn't feel like I was someone who would ever fearlessly stand up against two big jocks. Because I had been bullied in school, I was always the one who put my head down in fear or shame in those situations because I was the target in those situations. But, that night I just couldn't stand by and watch someone else go through what I had been through - that feeling of helplessness as you look down and try to pretend you're not hearing the words that are being directed at you. Something stronger than me rose up inside of me and spoke to those jocks.

In life we are taught not to "make a scene", especially in public places, such as in a restaurant. In a restaurant we have etiquette rules, manners to follow, plus people are there just to have a good time. Of course we don't want to make a scene. But, isn't it more important to defend an innocent person than to follow a rule of etiquette? If someone was choking, we would be willing to step in to help save that person, regardless of the fact that it would "make a scene". Sometimes you just have to throw out the rules and follow your instincts.

A few years after that incident when I was in college reading Dr. Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" it occurred to me that we have a duty as humans to speak up when necessary. 

During the Civil Rights movement, there were many white people who felt racism was wrong, but they didn't want to "make a scene". So, they continued to follow the unjust laws of separate drinking fountains, separate restrooms, separate seating on buses, etc. even though they disagreed with the unjust laws.

Imagine how powerful that would have been if all white people who disagreed with racism decided one day to ignore those laws forever. If everyone who disagreed with racism spoke out against it, changes would have happened much faster. 

Dr. King said: "One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Dr. Martin Luther King needed everyone who knew in their heart and soul that racism was wrong to speak out against it and protest it. In a peaceful way, of course. Dr. King strongly believed in non-violence. 

I believe that what Dr. King said about laws can also be applied to social norms.  We get so focused on being a "nice person" that we think that by always staying silent, we avoid conflict, and therefore, cause no harm. Sometimes staying silent and avoiding conflict isn't nice after all. Sometimes we do need to speak up. If you've ever seen the TV show "What Would You Do?" it's easy to see when it's the right time to speak up. 

Where would our nation be today without the voices of Dr. Luther King and those who peacefully protested with him? 

 

 

To read "Letter from Birmingham Jail": http://www.mlkonline.net/jail.html

To see MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PbUtL_0vAJk

To see the ABC show "What Would You Do?": http://abcnews.go.com/WhatWouldYouDo/

Thank you to brownagefilms for posting Dr. Martin Luther King's last speech on YouTube.