When will we learn?

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arrested for “loitering” in Montgomery, Alabama, in September 1958. (Wikimedia Commons)

[I wrote and posted this article on my then blog, VNACEO.blogspot.com, on January 18, 2010.]

It was ten years ago.  I had been at Dimock Community Health Center in Roxbury, Massachusetts for less than a year… having joined the organization largely due to the charisma of then CEO, Jackie Jenkins-Scott, as well as the compelling nature of the organization’s mission and history.  My intentions seemed right to me from the start, but I’ll never forget my first meeting with a group of HIV/AIDS activists and case workers.  One woman, who hadn’t made eye contact with me during my entire presentation, came to life when I asked whether there were any questions after my smart PowerPoint production.  Her question was simple… and piercing: “Yeah, what do you and your two hundred dollar fountain pen know about me?”  I had a lot to learn.  And it turns out that she had a lot to teach me.  But that’s a post for another day.

Just before Christmas, Jackie asked me if I would deliver the keynote address at the annual Martin Luther King breakfast at the health center.  The entire workforce would be there, as well as many board members and community guests.  Though to that point I had given many speeches to many audiences, this one stopped me squarely in my tracks.  Me?  Seriously, me?  I was overwhelmed by the prospect of delivering a speech on a subject, a person, I did not know.  I was overpowered by the clear fact that I, the one of the two hundred dollar fountain pen fame, would be speaking to an audience who, in many cases, had been personally inspired by and whose lives had been altered by this Martin Luther King.  What could I possibly say to them?

Jackie, I’m sure, sensed all this in me.  So she nudged and guided me to the task.  When I left her office, she had her yes.

Within hours, I stood at the nearest Barnes & Noble and thumbed through the numerous books on the man.  And there are numerous books on the man… with different points of view and all coming from varying, sometimes contrasting angles.  The greatness of Martin Luther King, a hero for black Americans everywhere, confounded me as I tried to choose the right angle and the right perspective… and precisely the right book.  Bewildered, I reached into the pile and grabbed one.

And I read it.  I read about his growing up in Georgia, the Baptist roots, Morehouse College, moving to Boston.  I read about a Civil Rights movement I had previously studied in history books full of brief, obligatory and two dimensional accounts of Birmingham and Selma and Washington, DC in 1963.  But this time through it, I understood it.  This time, I saw a man who was motivated not only by justice, but driven by the Christian ideals of service and caring for the very least among us.  Two dimensional Martin Luther King started to become three dimensional.  And so I bought a few more books.

I was drawn to his lingering, inner conflict, his being driven by a cause he felt he needed to pursue… while wanting what many of us want: peace and tranquility, a family, a simple life.  But despite threats against him, he continued in his mission, which he described to some as his ministry.  His unyielding support of non-violent activism, shaped by a visit to India in 1959, became his trademark approach, even when some of his closest friends and advisors began to grow weary of it.

I remember hearing the U2 song, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and knowing it was about King, but never fully understanding the particular angle they pursued.  Love.  In the Name of Love.  What exactly did Love have to do with it?

And there it was.  There was the speech.  It became a speech about love.  About humility.  About true greatness.  About the inspiration of Martin Luther King, not only for black Americans, but for all Americans.  For all Americans motivated by a desire for change and a profound willingness to see the good in everyone… even adversaries.  

The very least among us.

King once said: “Anyone can be great, because anyone can serve.”  

And here was his true greatness.

It was a speech about love.

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