Was He Only Dreaming?: Hoosier Perspectives on Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the fall of 1975, I opened my fresh new Language Arts textbook and found that some pages had been cut out.  I walked up to my teacher’s desk and his response was,

 ”I did that.  It was a story about Martin Luther King.  I don’t want you reading about some nigger who went around stirring up trouble.”

Yesterday, I was talking with an elderly woman who didn’t realize today was a holiday.

“What holiday is it?”

“Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday,” I replied.

“I swear.  What do you have to do to get a day named after you?  He didn’t do nothing.”

This morning, I was talking to a man in his 70s about King’s legacy.

“I know he preached non-violence,” he said, “but as soon as he’d finish his speeches, blacks would go around breaking into stores and stealing stuff.  I don’t care what the history books say.  I saw it on TV.”

While King is celebrated as a saint by nearly all African Americans and a vast majority of white Americans as well, there is still a pervasive racial attitude among some – perhaps those who find themselves on the wrong side of history – that King was anything but heroic.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”   ―  Martin Luther King Jr.

day 154  Martin Luther King jr. Day by ms.Tea

 from ms.Tea, some rights reserved

{I first posted this on MLK day last year and received a tremendous response. This year, I will be sharing it with my reading and writing classes as I also feature King’s classic book Strength to Love.}

Was He Only Dreaming?: Hoosier Perspectives on Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1975, I opened my fresh new Language Arts textbook and found that some pages had been cut out.  I walked up to my teacher’s desk and his response was,

 “I did that.  It was a story about Martin Luther King.  I don’t want you reading about some nigger who went around stirring up trouble.”

Yesterday, I was talking with an elderly woman who didn’t realize today was a holiday.

“What holiday is it?”

“Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday,” I replied.

“I swear.  What do you have to do to get a day named after you?  He didn’t do nothing.”

This morning, I was talking to a man in his 70s about King’s legacy.

“I know he preached non-violence,” he said, “but as soon as he’d finish his speeches, blacks would go around breaking into stores and stealing stuff.  I don’t care what the history books say.  I saw it on TV.”

While King is celebrated as a saint by nearly all African Americans and a vast majority of white Americans as well, there is still a pervasive racial attitude among some – perhaps those who find themselves on the wrong side of history – that King was anything but heroic.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”   ―  Martin Luther King Jr.

day 154  Martin Luther King jr. Day by ms.Tea

day 154  Martin Luther King jr. Day
from ms.Tea, some rights reserved

Racial Attitudes in “Heart of Darkness”

The following was written by my daughter Grace… 

joseph conrad

Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest books I have ever read.  It isn’t an easy read.  The language is complicated with long sentences and archaic words, and the plot itself, while flowing, does not have a good sense of the passage of time.  But it is a great book.  It is meant to be very dream-like – more of an ambiance than a story – to convey “that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”  And it does just that.  You may not understand the book, but you feel it.

One theme that caught my attention while I was reading Heart of Darkness was the attitude towards race relations.  Being set in colonized Africa, there is a lot of reference to the actions and reactions amidst white and black people.  From a simplistic outlook – and indeed this might be the final verdict- it seems clear, and historically accurate, that the white people’s view towards the Africans on the whole was patronizing at best.

The very setting that Marlow (the main character) is in, is that of Belgium setting up trade routes in Africa for the export of ivory. Belgium had “subdued” the areas and was hard at work, profiting on the African’s labor and resources.  The Europeans who came in to work at exportation – and those who came to stay just because – had a very high-minded, superior attitude towards the African natives.  Some people did not consider Africans to be human; others chose to ignore that they might have feelings and needs like their own.   Mostly the European interference was a reign of terror.

Others, including Marlow’s aunt who lived in Africa, had a slightly more humanitarian view.  She viewed the Africans as ignorant poor souls who needed to be “weaned from their horrid ways.”  The influence of English culture was considered for their good.  Even Marlow could see that she was very deluded about what was really happening.  Civilization in the sense of material things may have been being introduced to some degree, but the ones who were bringing it were brutal to the degree that they themselves became more savages than the “savages” they were exploiting.

Marlow touched on this idea more than once.  He traveled by steam boat, his crew consisted mostly of cannibals and a few Europeans.   At one point he had a shocking realization that the odds of cannibals to non-cannibals was 30 to 5.  The cannibals could have easily overpowered and eaten them at any time – and they had a reason to, for most of their food had been thrown overboard because some of the others couldn’t stand the smell.  But they showed a most remarkable restraint.  Marlow, at this point, admires them. And he is the only person who does.

Indeed, Marlow is the only person who pays any attention to the fact that the Africans are humans same as the Europeans.  He is saddened and infuriated, in turns, by the brutality that the white men show to the black – beatings, overworking, shooting for any reason.  He does not shoot any black man, even when being attacked – choosing instead to blow the steamboat whistle to scare them away.  He scares the natives away again when the white men on board are planning to attack.  He gives his dead black helmsmen a burial at sea – rather a hasty affair, but that ended up saving the dead body from being eaten by the cannibals.  Marlow gives a biscuit to a starving African.  He turns away from the sight of a chain gang.  And in this shows a remarkable sensitivity that one does not always see in older books.

And yet there are incongruences in his actions.  In many ways he treated the Africans with more humanity, but in his thought and speech, you can tell he did not think them equals.  He used many derogative terms, several times mentions them as lazy, and does not provide for his crewmen.  He expounds on the primitiveness of their ways in a way that is both belittling and wistful.  He says, “…you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of [their dancing], a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.” In that he seems to call it savageness, yet wishes he could take part.  When asked why he didn’t go and dance with the natives, he replied that he might have, had it not been for the work on the steam boat, which required complete attention.

Needless to say, Marlow was alone in his sentiments. Even Kurtz – arguably the real focal point of the novel- who was the most intimately involved with the Africans, far more than any other European, viewed them as people to be manipulated, first for their own good, but later for his own.  And as I have stated, this was the common viewpoint. Unfortunately, this led to a long and cruel European reign in Africa which is still being healed.  May God, and Africa, be merciful for our sins.

 

(image “JOSEPH CONRAD//Józef Teodor…” from NCMallory, some rights reserved)

Clarence Jordan and Koinonia

clarence jordan quote

Clarence Jordan. was a Baptist preacher who, in the 1940’s was inspired by God to purchase land in south  Georgia and form a community where people treated each other as equals, no matter what the color of their skin.  Jordan and his wife, Florence, joined a missionary couple, the Englands, bought a plot in Americus, Georgia and began to farm. Though Jordan had grown up on a farm and received a degree in agriculture, he still had a lot to learn. There were many days, he said, when he would climb to the roof of his hut to see what his neighboring farmers were doing that day, and then he would get down and do the same.

Over time, Jordan gained a reputation, not so much for his farming, as for his relations with the “local colored people” as they were then (politely) called. People heard that he paid black hired hands a livable wage, much more than other farmers in the area. People also heard that he invited blacks into his kitchen where they would pray together and share a meal.

Finally, some bigoted neighbors had heard enough. They sent a delegation from what was called a “Citizens Council” which was a fancy name for the Ku Klux Klan. Jordan greeted them at the door. They got right to the point.

 

 “Mr. Jordan, we’re here on behalf of the community to let you know that we don’t let the sun go down on a man who eats with a nigger.”

 

Clarence looked at them, grinned, and held out his hand.

 

“Well, sirs, I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’ve always wanted to meet the Man who had power over the sun.”

 

They never came back. In time, they organized a local boycott, trying to drive him out by not selling or buying things from the farm. Jordan adapted by setting up a roadside stand on the highway and selling to visiting passersby. Later, he began to sell products mail order.

Jordan’s community, which became known as “Koinonia” (the Greek word for community) grew. As the Civil Rights battles heated up in the 1960’s so did the attacks on Koinonia. In one year, there were over a dozen bomb threats and twice the roadside stand was destroyed beyond repair. A friend of Jordan’s asked him once why he didn’t just pick up and leave. Jordan replied –

 

“You don’t understand how deeply I am connected with this land. I’ve farmed this land for over 20 years. We’ve raised our family here. I buried a son over in that field. And you think I can just pick up and leave? You might as well tell me to rip out my heart to keep it beating.”

 

Clarence Jordan knew what it meant to be one with another, to be connected with the land and with each other. God’s desire for us is to be one in Christ, no matter who we are, no matter what we do. The mystery of God’s grace is that in the Spirit of Christ, we become one, … no matter how different we are, no matter what we believe about ourselves. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, man or woman, black or white, but we are all one.

 

(image “the scriptures should be…” from  ann karp, some rights reserved)