As an English teacher, I've always enjoyed the pleasures of reading; specifically, the writings of 19th and 20th century martyrs and confessors who used eloquent narratives and folklore to tell stories of their rags and redemption. But my reading never quite prepared me for the task of reflecting on my personal experience with a particular martyred leader from which my own life, faith and view of the world would be deeply affected. I grew up in Baltimore and was raised by a single mother who believed that storytelling and faith was all that mattered. And as a child, I discovered this impenetrable fascination with listening to my mother tell stories of her childhood years — that is, growing up in the midst of the Jim Crow era.
On most Sunday nights, I woke to the sound of her voice reading the Bible. She often talked about the prolific preacher Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., political assassinations, the politics of the '50s and '60s and how the invention of the drug epidemic contaminated most inner city neighborhoods — we lived in the shadow of that, and she wanted me to understand that Baltimore stood as an example of both black and white living productively together, and that everyone didn't believe in such a model. And yet, she introduced me to a man whose ideals, arguably, continue to resonate as America's most prophetic voice.
I remember her painting a mental image of King, the great orator and agitator alike. She would courageously call him the "disturber of unjust democracy and unjust peace." I later learned the value in discovering the truth of King's life and the very essence of his convictions through his eloquent writings and speeches.
In his 1963 essay, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," King explains why his nonviolent campaign was critical to fighting injustice in the South and around the world. His treatise prophetically warns us of the dangers of racism, bigotry, poverty, militarism and unjust law. King maintained that as a collective community we must believe that "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." And with piercing insight, he urged us (not just clergy) to be concerned with America's changing moral landscape.
Now, when I think of King, I think of a narrative that is positive and pragmatic, tragic and triumphant, painful and yet so powerful. This week, thousands of schools across the country will commemorate the slain, iconic civil-rights leader. We must not take for granted the fact that it's only been 60 years since the Supreme Court delivered the Brown v. Board of Education decision ending racial segregation, and the Montgomery, Ala. boycott that led to King's popular non-violent protest for racial and social equality.
And, in ways beyond our calculation, all of us have been affected by King's legacy. So, in our toasts, let us not forget King's authentic work and his posterity for a generation that is recurrently confronted with racism, poverty, mass incarceration, materialism, militarism, economic inequality and a justice system that claims the lives of one in three African American males who largely populate inner cities. In the spirit of Martin Luther King, we must teach this generation that our loyalties to peace, justice and democracy must transcend the ubiquitous evil that exists within the structure of racism, bigotry and violence. This is why I have continued to take pleasure in the joys of reading and teaching King's narrative. Still, I enjoy sharing stories with young people, who are, for the most part, eager to learn and given charge to continue the legacy and convictions of Martin Luther King. And, I am all but certain that they will grow to share a few stories of their own.
Jack C. Hill is a Baltimore resident, National Diversity Consultant, faculty member and Chair of the Department of English at the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Missouri. His email is email@example.com.
To respond to this commentary, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name and contact information.