“How is this Day Different from All Other Days”
A paraphrase of one of the questions asked at the Passover seder–a holiday that serves as a period of remembrance of the sacrifices of a previous generation–”How is this day different from all other days” feels strangely applicable to my celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter are my favorite holidays, but Martin Luther King, Jr. day is probably the one that impacts my life more than any other.
Today I’ve been thinking a lot about Dr. King and his legacy. The meaning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life has changed along with my understanding of his thinking, his life, and his politics. Dr. King was born into a family of relative privilege (relative, because for Black folks in the 1920s–and the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, for that matter–a steady job and a stable home was enough to propel you into the middle class; class wasn’t so much about wealth as it was about opportunity). He went to Morehouse College for his undergraduate degree, and then onto Boston University for his doctorate.
In 1955, shortly after completing his PhD, he traveled to Alabama to join the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that landmark act of resistance lanched by the famous refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat for a white person. His involvement in this action set him on a path that would change the United States (and the world) forever, but that would also lead to his tragically premature death.
Shortly after completing my PhD, I traveled to the west coast to begin my first academic job. Since then, my path has mostly be driven by concern for my own needs and the needs of those who are closest to me. It’s an interesting thing for me to consider, given that Dr. King consistently made choices that privileged the needs of people he barely knew over the needs and/or desires of those whom he loved.
On January 16, 1968, Dr. King delivered a speech in which he retold the New Testament tale of the good Samaritan. Instead of reading the Biblical parable verbatim from the Book of Luke, he did more of a midrash-type interpretation of it, that read into the actions of the parties involved in order to expose and understand their motivations.
He imagined that the two men who passed the traveler who was being robbed without stopping to offer him aid must have asked themselves, “if I stop to help what will happen to me?” On the other hand King imagined that the good Samaritan, the one who stopped to aid the victimized traveler, must have asked himself, “if I don’t stop to help, what will happen to that poor man.”
Thinking about this speech, which NPR host Terry Gross played on _Fresh Air_ this afternoon, I am reminded of the many times I have participated in discussions evaluating whether or not the Civil Rights Movement was a success or a failure. Based on my own life, and on the fact that little of the life that I lead today would have been possible without the Civil Rights Movement, I must conclude that it was a success. Similarly, I can imagine that someone who has found themselves at the mercy of our somewhat less than merciful criminal justice system, or someone who has found herself mired in poverty and/or victimized by overt discrimination might argue that the Civil Rights Movement was a failure.
Dr. King’s good Samaritan speech, however, points to the fundamental irrelevance of such evaluations of the Civil Rights Movement, in that it reveals the pursuit of social justice for all, not as a movement with a fixed point of completion, but as a daily, lifelong practice. To advocate for Civil Rights is to put concern for yourself aside and, instead, to exercise that most difficult form of de-centering the self, the daily practice of privileging the needs of others over your own needs.
It is one of the reasons, I suppose, that the Black middle class was, for the most part, reluctant to join with the Civil Rights Movement, at least in its initial days. With the exception of African American college students, many Black folks in the middle class saw the violent arrests of King’s peaceful marchers, and feared for what might happen to them if they too got involved. As the movement grew is size and strength, though, King’s appeals to the bourgeoisie became more pointed, as he appealed to those who were more financially secure to think less of themselves and more of their brethren–the domestic workers, agricultural workers, and sanitation workers of the day–and to try to envision what the fate of Black working-class and poor citizens would be if a large portion of the middle class stood aside and did nothing.
For whatever reason, I feel that call especially powerfully today. Whew! It’s a tall order, this putting others–strangers–before yourself; and I don’t know if I’m up to the challenge, at least not on the level of King’s activism. But I believe deeply in King’s principles, and somewhere way down inside I understand that social justice for all will only become a reality when we all begin to put the good of others before our concerns for ourselves.
I’ve got some thinking to do, hopefully to be followed by some action. In the interim, I think it would be a good idea –when I see another young Black suspect being perp walked in front of the television cameras, when I pass a group of young brothers aimlessly chillin’ in front of the corner store, when I read news reports of the countdown to another execution at San Quentin, when I see a young mother trying to wrangle a grocery cart, her car keys, and several kids–well, it would be a good idea for me to push myself to ask, “What Would Martin Do?”
Posted by Ajuan Mance