Honoring King, Honoring Action

Today, perhaps more than previous years, (although I’m not sure if that’s true), our relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his story comes front and center. And just because we don’t know what to say, or don’t know how to say it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

It’s easy to simply King into the four words that he’s been condensed into – “I have a dream.” And it’s a great speech. Watch it. Show it to your kids. Talk about it with your friends. Use the speech as a place to start.

But don’t stop there.

As adults, we know how complicated life is. We know that change doesn’t happen just because we want it to. We know that in order for real change to happen, people have to get up and do something. They have to show up. They have to speak about difficult things in awkward situations. Conversations have to get embarrassing, weird, uncomfortable, angry, and defensive. Books have to be read, history has to be discovered (and uncovered) and empathy has to develop.

We cannot afford to believe, or tell our kids, that King gave this speech on his own. We have to also remember all the people who turned up. All the people who skipped work and carpooled into DC to help King make his point. All the bagged lunches they brought and the lines they waited in when they had to go to the bathroom. Why they cared enough to come, when being present is sometimes the hardest part.

That’s the problem with our condensed versions in retelling history – when we keep our focus solely on the hero, we don’t celebrate all the regular folk whose contribution made the event an event at all. And by leaving those people out, we cut ourselves out too. We give ourselves a free pass to sit back and wait for another King to show up and make all the changes we want to see. And doing nothing doesn’t work.

So let’s use this holiday as an opportunity to celebrate Dr. King and his leadership. And then let’s raise a glass for the ordinary folk who got blasted with water cannons, boycotted the buses, and made the phone calls.

“I am happy to join with you today,” started King in his infamous speech, and then, “We cannot walk alone.” Our collective participation mattered that day, and it matters today.

Happy Martin Luther King Day, friends. Thanks for reading.

And one Post Script – Rosa Parks wasn’t too tired to get up and move her seat. That moment was carefully planned. If we omit that part, we continue the (false) impression that change just happens, by luck or by chance. Which we know is not true. Change happens because we make it happen. She made it happen. With a lot of help before, during and after. Teamwork, folks.

Cover photo taken from http://abcnews.go.com/WN/News/page/quiz-march-washington-50th-anniversary-20011969

Posted by

Mel Kozakiewicz a professor, editor, writer, and mother of two.

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