High as the Listening Skies, Loud as the Rolling Sea

People often ask me how I hack it in Wyoming. Don’t I miss, well, culture? There are all sorts of things wrong with that question, not the least of which is that every place has a culture. But I know what they mean: don’t I miss living in a place where there are concerts and lectures and people who get the New Yorker? You can find all of those things in Wyoming, though often they’re a little far flung.

In truth, for the most part, I don’t miss the culture I left to come here. Oh, now and then I get a hankering for Indian food, but I manage.

I’d forgotten until today what the other thing I miss is.

My friend called on her way to the Twin Cities wondering if I could look up the time of a particular Martin Luther King Day celebration that she wanted to attend. Unfortunately, it was held last Tuesday, on his actual birthday. “But wait!” I said. “There is a whole page of MLK Day events.”

So tomorrow afternoon, my friend will be going back to her undergraduate college to hear Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, an early SNCC organizer whom I’ve read about in books. And I. . . will be at work. Although MLK Day is a national holiday, it is not one recognized by Park County, Wyoming, and thus, as a county employee, I do not have it off.

It is popular nowadays to celebrate MLK Day as a “day on” instead of a day off: a day where you go out and work in your community to make the world a better place. I’m glad that people are feeling moved by the day to do that kind of work. The priest at my church once said that going to church is your reward for being a Christian all week long, and I tend to feel the same way about MLK Day. I try on a daily basis to make decisions, and to encourage others to make decisions, that make the world better for the poor and the oppressed. One day a year I want to celebrate that work. I want to listen to speeches and spirituals. I want to lift my voice and sing until earth and heaven ring with the harmonies of liberty.

I took that for granted before I moved here. Oh, I remember signing the petition to get MLK Day recognized by the University of Iowa, and I remember, in later years, getting told we couldn’t leaflet for political causes outside the big MLK Day celebration. I got plenty cynical about the University’s supposed commitment to human rights, which seemed to consist of freeloading on the reputation of a great man every year around his birthday, and which, like most remembrances of King, focused solely on his early civil rights work and not at all on his campaigns against poverty and war. I didn’t realize until last year, my first MLK Day here, how much that ceremony meant to me, despite my doubts as to the appropriateness and sincerity of its sentiments.

Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the first people I remember learning about. I surely knew about kings and queens and presidents and actors at least dimly, when I was seven. But one night when we still lived on Rider Street in Iowa City my mother saw that there was going to be a special program on television about Martin Luther King, and she told me that, if I wanted to, I could stay up past my bedtime to watch it. In all the years that she had a say over my bedtime, this is the only occasion on which I can recall my mother allowing me to stay up late. She explained that Dr. King had been an important man, and that her best friend in high school had taken a bus all the way from Chicago to Washington D.C. to be at a march where Dr. King had given his famous speech. Thirty years later, my friend–the same one who’ll be at Augsburg College tomorrow–and I went to an anniversary march in Washington, and I spent the night at the house of the mother of my mother’s best friend, and she packed a lunch for me of peanut butter sandwiches on raisin bread–just what she’d packed for her daughter for the bus trip, since the bus would be unable to stop at segregated restaurants along the way.

I think I shall have to make my own ceremony here, and that ceremony will begin with turning back to the language. Dr. King’s famous quotations are generally taken out of context, and while the words still ring out, they lose specificity, and, in doing so, become platitudes. People always remember the beginning of the Declaration of Indpendence and forget all about the list of greivances that make up the bulk of the document. Similarly, people tend to remember only the end of the “I Have a Dream” speech and forget the rest of the speech, where King discusess the promissary note “to which every American was to fall heir,” the promise of that first part of the Declaration of Independence, and the “shameful condition” that, for so many, that promise has not been kept.

I offer tonight two selections from “A Time to Break Silence,” the speech in which King first came out agains the Vietnam War. Space, time, and copyright prevent me from offering anything but excerpts, but I hope that I leave as much context as possible attached.

Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in a time of war.

Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken–the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investment.

And then, because it is celebration I wish to provoke, not merely action, I leave you with perhaps my favorite paragraph of all, a passage from King’s first book, Stride Toward Freedom, about the Montgomery bus boycott:

A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often express his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes these are not ends in themselves; they are merely means to awake a sense of moral shame in the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.

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