On the occasion of marking and commemorating another birthday of the American icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I want to revisit why I still consider him one of the biggest heroes in my own life.
A hero for me is someone who, when facing a certain set of circumstances, acts in a way I believe or hope I would act in the same or similar circumstances. Given the opportunity to confront American racism and its effects head-on, Dr. Martin Luther King garnered the courage and choose to face it and fight it time and time again, until one of those battles tragically cost him his life.
Was he a perfect man devoid of his own human frailties? Of course not. Did he make mistakes? Yes, undeniably. That being said, did he as a social justice warrior try to stay true to his vision of one America, as spelled out in his oft-quoted “I Have a Dream ” speech, one in which everyone in this country was treated equally and given equal opportunities to succeed? I would have to argue emphatically “Yes “.
Growing up in 1970s America ( I was five years old when Dr. King was assassinated ), this was the vision I came to believe in for America as well. The fact that Whites and Blacks could not live together peacefully was counterintuitive to my prepubescent and adolescent brain. It seemed so mystifying to me back then, and it still does today – that how could this not be every American’s view when one of our founding documents says “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”?
Learning at an early age that a number of the Founding Fathers ( including the man who wrote those groundbreaking words from the Declaration of Independence) were themselves hypocritical slave owners, only served to make me cling to Dr King’s vision all the more.
It was the embodiment, to me, a White kid in Cincinnati, Ohio, of what America is, of what she should stand for and what she should always be striving to achieve.
Knowing that I descend from a number of Southern ancestors who were slave owners, avowed racists, and members of the Ku Klux Klan, makes my heart heavy in grief and remorse. When I think about the pain and suffering that members of my family inflicted upon my American brothers and sisters of color, I seek solace in Dr King’s vision and recommit myself to making it a reality by doing what I can to alleviate and reverse the effects of decades of racial hatred that members of my own family helped propagate and were involved in.
While I will, of course, never face the pressures and certain realities of what Dr.King faced or even what the average Black person in America faces on a daily basis, I also realize that the fight for racial justice is part of why I am here on this planet. I, as a White person, born and raised in America, have an obligation and duty to recognize my white privilege and to fight against racism and its virulence by calling it and rooting it out relentlessly.
Lost in a lot of the peace and love platitudes about Dr. King and his nonviolent moment this time of year is the fact that at his core King was a gritty, indefatigable, and tenacious fighter who was fearless in his insistence that it was White America’s ingrained belief in white supremacy that fueled and kept its foul racism alive and thriving. He was, in fact, at the time of his death considered a dangerous radical by a lot of White Americans, because of his persistence in speaking the truth about America, her past, and her future prospects if she didn’t change.
He is still my hero after all these years because, frankly, I want to be like him and fearlessly face that recalcitrant monster called American racism just as steadfastly as he did whenever I see and hear it. I can only hope to show a sliver of the same heart and bravery that this great man of love and spirit displayed in copious amounts his entire life.
The playlist I have included with this post contains songs from multiple genres that run the entire span of my life and include a number from the present day as well as a couple that were known to be Dr. King’s favorites. What they all have in common is that each one, in their own way, confronts the realities of American racism and its effects with straightforwardness and honesty. It is not a playlist for the faint of heart, but neither is the fight against bigotry and racism that I believe we should all be engaged in. Be inspired my brothers and sisters and let’s keep up the struggle together. Happy Birthday, MLK our love for you and the ideals you stood for will never die. https://open.spotify.com/playlist/42GXeBYzFqmLR66Q1fOvBd