NOTE: This article was originally published on MLK Day, January 19, 2015. I republish today with an update at the end.
My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.~Desmond Tutu
IN HONOR of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Today the United States celebrates the first national holiday of the year, the day that honors the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I want to share two memories associated with Dr. King, one heavy and one delightful.
Late one afternoon in 1968, I was a teenage girl daydreaming and listening to the Beatles on the radio. It was getting dark, almost suppertime on the farm in Tennessee where I grew up. The music stopped, and a news bulletin broke in. Dr. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in Memphis, just 90 miles away.
The news filled me with shame, and dread. In the South I grew up in, bones of the Confederacy were not laid to rest. My parents were on the other side of the civil rights issue. Civil rights threatened them and brought up all their fears. I had not yet formed my own opinions, though I am sure turning 13 in 1968 influenced my liberalization, as I began to think for myself. It was many years later, after I moved to New York City, that I began to study Dr. King and Civil Rights, and I learned how much we’d lost that day in Memphis.
His words ring more true to me with each passing year.
The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.
~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Half a lifetime later...
On January 18, 2009, it was the day after Martin Luther King Day, and the day after Barak Obama’s first inauguration. Spirits were high in the nation’s capital, and all over the world. I was flying back to Maine from a meeting in Phoenix, Arizona. Sitting alone on a shuttle between terminals at Dulles International Airport in Washington, DC, I was joined by an entourage. A familiar and very happy elderly man sat across from me. His blazer bore an ecclesiastical emblem on the pocket. It was indeed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. The shuttle filled with travelers, and the Archbishop’s assistant offered to take our pictures with him. I sat beside him and shared a few words, thanking him for his work.
You’ve seen him in videos, laughing and joyful as he speaks truth. That’s how he is. He was a keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King Day service at the National Cathedral in 2012. Someone asked if he was at the Inauguration. No! he said, laughing. I didn’t have a ticket! He watched on television.
It was a magnificent day for the world, he said. He could not say it enough, how happy he was, how important and joyful this day was for the world. And he was right, in that moment!
It was over 40 years since that darkest day for Peace and Justice when Dr. King was murdered. I got to witness what it meant to the man who’d presided over the dismantling of South African apartheid and the restoration and forgiveness he mediated in his country.
Our work is not done, and never will be. The work of orgasmic liberation, true complete self-ownership for all people, is all our ongoing work. Peace is our purpose. Peace is the very definition of "creative maladjustment of the non-conforming minority."
I read the words of Dr. King with new eyes today. Since I posted in 2015, the unthinkable has happened. The joy and hope that Archbishop Tutu felt on that fateful day in 2009, barely nine years later, has given way to deeper entrenchment and overt expression of white supremacy and racism in this country.
I have to own my part in racist America. I am a white woman, born into privilege and safety by virtue of my skin color. I was bred into racism so deep that I can't see it in myself. I have undertaken the difficult education to face my own unconscious internalized racism.
Unless I do this work to remove my own racism, I remain part of the "conforming majority."
Justice for all people, indeed the fate of planet Earth, requires that I do this work. I stand with, as a member of, the non-conforming minority. Together we shall become the majority!