Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Although the country celebrates on the third Monday in January to regularize the holiday for employers, Dr. King was indeed born on the 15th of January, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia—he would have been 91 years old today. I write to you because I believe it’s critical that we reflect on his life, his work, and his death more so now than in any other time since the day he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4th, 1968.
Inspired in part by his birthday and with Black History Month right around the corner in February, I’ve reflected deeply on Dr. King’s work since the New Year. Of course I’d read his famous lines and listened to I Have A Dream at some point in high school; of course I’d always admired and respected Dr. King and his commitment to my own shared passions for civil rights and non-violent protest. But I went pretty deep into his work these last two weeks. And I’ve emerged super-charged from that reading and now see Dr. King as a bright, clarifying light for me as a person, for COA as an institution, and for the world at large. Here’s why.
For starters, in my eyes, no one has a better, more compelling command of the English language than MLK. With all the discussion recently about whether or not there can or should be a canon of work in the English language (see, for example Ross Douthot’s piece in the NYT from this weekend), I feel enthusiastic about publicly responding to that question with a resounding “yes” and “put King at the top of the list.” King’s brilliance with language can be found everywhere in his writing. For example, in his 1967 speech at the National Conference on New Politics, Dr. King says:
In an age so adjusted to war, I call on you to be maladjusted; In an age adjusted to imperialism and colonialism, I call on you to be maladjusted.In an age amazingly adjusted to hate and malice, I call on you to be maladjusted.Too many people in America are more concerned about making a living than making a life; there is a need, now more than ever before, for men and women in our nation to be creatively maladjusted.
No one married content and delivery better than King. Whether reading them or listening to them, his words make the hair stand up on the back of my neck. As important as their beauty and rhythm, his words are powerful calls to action that move us from apathy, that force us to push through disparity and loss of hope. If nothing else, have a read of his last speech, one of my top two favorites, from Memphis, Tennessee where he was galvanizing a group of striking sanitation workers. Really excellent annotations of that piece can be found in the New York Times here and in the Irish Times here. It’s called I’ve Been to the Mountaintop and it’s hard to fathom that he was only 39 years old when he uttered those words. He speaks with the ferocity of a young man, but with the wisdom of a learned octogenarian.
It shouldn’t be lost on us that Martin Luther King Jr.’s period of greatest impact during his short life overlapped importantly with the founding ideas of our own college. One of our two founding trustees was Jim Gower, a Catholic priest and peace activist profoundly shaped by the words and actions of Dr. King. Did you know College of the Atlantic was originally going to be named The Acadian Peace College” Father Gower served in Waterville and right here in Bar Harbor, at the Holy Redeemer Church on Mt. Desert Street, and would later go on to establish the Maine Chapter of Pax Christi in 1980. Although the first inspiration for COA may have been to help rekindle the economic and intellectual flames on MDI that had been devastated by the fire of 1947, it was Father Gower who said, “If we’re going to build a college, it’s going to be focused on addressing the social and ecological turmoil we face as a species. I’ve buried too many boys killed in Vietnam.”
Martin Luther King Jr. attacked the social injustice of segregation throughout the American South. Those examples of brilliant, focused acts of organized and strategic non-violence paved the way toward the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 here in the US. But Dr. King also believed deeply in and worked toward the unity of the human spirit, the need for a global perspective in addition to local action, and was a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam.
From his 1967 speech Beyond Vietnam, King writes:
We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
Much has been written about MLK as the prescient, founding father of “environmentalism.” Yet, for me, honestly, his work speaks to us here at COA more for its erasure of disciplinary or subject matter boundaries than for its importance of adding fodder to the rather problematic category of “environment.” King is the ultimate human ecologist. From his address on the stairs of the Montgomery City Hall after his 50-mile pilgrimage from Selma on March, 25, 1965;
All I’m saying is simply this: that all life is interrelated; we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny; whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
And, again from the 1967 National Conference of New Politics:
… there are those who have criticized me; those who have said that the issues of civil rights cannot be separated from the issues of peace; I intend to keep these issues mixed because they are mixed. I’m not going to segregate my moral concern.
But for an even deeper understanding of Dr. King’s human ecology, have a look at my other top-two pieces of his work, entitled The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life (really worth listening to his voice via YouTube; there are several versions of this speech, here’s one version if you’d rather read than listen). In that work, King shows he is really thinking about the implications of our globalized world, where:
We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half the world.
But King’s words are equally as powerful when they bring us beyond the world of practical social justice, of global politics, and of the need for national socio-economic reform, that is, when they bring us to the spiritual and the divine. Dr. King was a Christian Pastor. His parables and proclamations frequently reference the divine, Jesus Christ, and organized religion, which doesn’t always sit well for the atheist or non-Christian. For me, as a Catholic, he has somehow, from the grave, inspired new interest in the power of faith and faith-based communities. But no matter what your interest or practice of religion may be, it’s hard not to be moved by his words that stretch our minds beyond the material world. Like these lines, describing that “third dimension” from his Three Dimensions of a Complete Life:
We become so involved in looking at the man-made lights of the city that we unconsciously forget to look up and think about that great cosmic light. It gets up early in the morning in the eastern horizon and paints its technicolor across the blue, a light that man could never make. We become so involved in looking at our sky scraping buildings, and we unconsciously forget to think about the gigantic mountains kissing the sky, something that man could never make. We become so involved and fascinated about our radar and ourtelevisions that we unconsciously forget to think about the beautiful stars that bedeck the heavens, like swinging lanterns of eternity something that man could never make.
I love walking, running, and climbing and it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m deeply inspired by the walking and climbing King did during his life. Martin Luther King made pilgrimages on foot and in spirit, to mountaintops and to jail cells, in Jericho and in Selma, Alabama. His footsteps are all around us. Those prints must be studied with an unparalleled sense of relentless curiosity and wonder, for they give us great insight about what it actually means to be human.
I want to find a way to honor Dr. King’s work, through our own work here at COA. I want to pay special mind to his passionate plea for unselfishness. Dr. King called on us to “…develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness…” (that’s from his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee). If there’s one word that captures the spirit of MLK it’s unselfishness; if there’s one word that describes what we need now more than ever as individuals, as a college, as a global community, it is a reawakened sense of unselfishness.
To mark the power of this word and concept, we are creating the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness. (side note: I had considered an award in Creative Maladjustment, another powerful phrase from King, but I thought that that might raise eyebrows if listed on a resume!). That title nicely honors the words and deeds of two great champions of the cause, Dr. Martin Luther King and Congressman John Lewis. Congressman Lewis, as you may have heard, is now battling cancer. Lewis marched side-by-side with King in the 60s and has fought valiantly to continue King’s fight across the half century following King’s death.
I will be convening a small group of faculty and staff to choose the winner of this award every year on Martin Luther King’s birthday (the 15th, whether or not it falls on the third Monday of January). Although the award will recognize an individual, it will also emphasize the work that the individual has done as part of a team on a particular project that, together, embodies the spirit and work of MLK and Congressman Lewis.
But in this, the inaugural year of the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness, I am selecting the individual and project myself. I am proud to announce that the 2020 award winner of the Congressman John Lewis Award for Dangerous Unselfishness is Vonnie Love and her work to form and lead the Black Student Union here at College of the Atlantic. Vonnie will receive $500 to help build on the work of COA’s Black Student Union. Congratulations, Vonnie, and thank you for helping build a better sense of dangerous unselfishness here at COA.
Be well all,