My high school U.S. History teacher was Indian American. It’s not something I thought a whole lot about when I was in his class — too busy trying to stay awake — but looking back, it’s a wonder to me that he didn’t say something about his heritage.
Actually, no. I take that back. It was the early 2000s, and everybody’s favorite word was "colorblindness." Any acknowledgement of racial differences would’ve been in poor taste. Divisive even. People like you, Martin, gave their time, energy, resources, to ensure that we here in the grand ol' U.S.A. would be judged by the content of our character, not the color(s) of our skin. Mr. Tripahti was human, and he knew his American history. The fact that he was brown was beside the point.
Or so we were told.
Looking back some sixteen years later, though, a part of me wonders if drawing attention to it — to the marvel that 41 years after Ruby Bridges, flanked by U.S. Marshals, became the first student to desegregate a school in the South, an Indian immigrant was teaching U.S. History at one of the most diverse high schools in Metro Atlanta — would’ve been beneficial to us, variously hued U.S. citizens that we were.
"People like you, Martin, gave their time, energy, resources, to ensure that we here in the grand ol' U.S.A. would be judged by the content of our character, not the color(s) of our skin."
I definitely think it would’ve been beneficial to me, the one black kid in the classroom. In fact, Martin, I think part of my struggle to stay awake in that class might’ve had something to do with the fact that despite covering some 200+ years of American history — all of which my ancestors, both Native and African American, were present for — we rarely delved into anything involving people who looked like me.
Matter of fact, if I remember correctly, there was maybe half a page in my history textbook dedicated to the American slave trade. Reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were rolled into one chapter. You were mentioned there.
"...if I remember correctly, there was maybe half a page in my history textbook dedicated to the American slave trade."
And I’m not sure much has changed in US History curriculums in the sixteen years since I was subjected to the one in Tripathi’s class. I’m an author now —my debut novel, Dear Martin, is about a 17-year-old black boy writing letters suspiciously similar to this one to help him navigate the racism he encounters in the 21st Century — and when I go into schools and ask kids what they know about you, they list the stuff I saw in my textbook: Leader of the Civil Rights Movement, proponent of nonviolent protest, gave the “I Have A Dream” speech, fought for racial equality, won the Nobel Peace Prize.
And you did and were all of those things.
But I can’t help but wonder if we’ve done you — and ourselves — a disservice by summarizing your legacy in those easily digested highlights.
Today is your birthday. You would’ve been 89 years old.
Today is also the national holiday we celebrate in your honor. To commemorate your achievements, and draw attention to the way you altered the course of history.
"But I can’t help but wonder if we’ve done you — and ourselves — a disservice by summarizing your legacy in those easily digested highlights."
It’s a day of remembrance. A day we as Americans are called to pause and pull at our memories of you — either direct or indirect, experienced or leaned.
And these memories are vital. Twenty-two years to the day after you accepted the Nobel Peace Prize — 1986, the first year MLK Day was nationally celebrated, in fact — the prize was awarded to a man named Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor one year your senior who spent his life stressing the importance of remembering. “It is memory that will save humanity,” he said in his Nobel lecture. “The memory of evil will serve as a shield against evil.”
Thing is, despite this yearly reminder of you, I think there’s a lot we’ve forgotten.
Like we recall "nonviolent" and "civil," but forget the disobedience. We see your statue in the heart of our nation’s capital and remember your greatness, but we’ve forgotten the upheaval you wrought and how you were hated for it. We remember your hatred of war, your love of your fellow man, and your pursuit of peace, but we’ve forgotten how the movement you spearheaded and the methods you espoused were the epitome of disruptive to American life at that time.
"...we recall "nonviolent" and "civil," but forget the disobedience."
I know we’ve forgotten because over the past six years, it’s become clear that we have NOT achieved your dream in this country: systemic racism still runs rampant, and white supremacy is as alive and well as when that Birmingham church was bombed in 1963 (ask the members of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC if you don’t believe me). Yet when folks step up and speak out nonviolently—taking to the streets en masse, waving signs that proclaim Black Lives Matter, scaling flagpoles to remove symbols that celebrate inhumane aspect of this country’s history, staying seated during the pledge of allegiance or kneeling during the national anthem—we’re told that YOU, the one we hail as supreme conqueror of (some) injustice, the man who shoved us closer to racial equality than anyone before or since… if you were alive today, you would never.
You wouldn’t get involved in our marches.
You would be appalled by our protests.
You would never take a freeway.
We’re told that the nonviolent movements of today — the ones opposing continued racism, police brutality, systemic injustice, a flawed criminal justice system — are destructive.
We’ve clearly forgotten you were told the same thing. That your protests were met with opposition in the form of firebombs, dogs, fire hoses.
We’ve forgotten that people ignored you, your movement, the people you were fighting for—until they couldn’t anymore because you disrupted the status quo.
We’ve forgotten that you were threatened, jailed, and eventually killed in your pursuit of true liberty and justice for all as the Pledge of Allegiance so aptly puts it.
"We’ve clearly forgotten you were told the same thing. That your protests were met with opposition in the form of firebombs, dogs, fire hoses."
This MLK Day — only the fifth to fall on your actual birthday since the holiday was first celebrated 32 years ago, and the one we’re celebrating just a few months shy of the 50th anniversary of your assassination — I’m determined to remember, Martin.
Because as Elie Wiesel said from that same Nobel podium you’d stood at twenty-two years prior: There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.