Speech given by history teacher Fred Kountz at the All School Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Assembly on January 12.
This talk is a shorter version of a chapel homily I gave at the St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, January 2011.
When we love something. When we are really in to something, we get defensive about it when we feel like it is misunderstood or under appreciated, and especially if we perceive in someone else something like false or insufficient affection for it, which we chalk up to them just not getting it. I was going to say this isn’t really an issue for you little guys. Like, if I walked into your classroom and said “I love Frozen! ” You would all freak out because of course you love Frozen too and we could just share that love and have the best time ever. You wouldn’t care that I was old-er or maybe didn’t know as much about it as you. You would just be happy that we could all watch together.
I was going to say that. But I see this same defensive-aggressive mindset in my daughter, who’s 3. She, like literally hundreds of millions of little girls like her, loves Frozen. My son, who is a year and a half, also loves Frozen. Except he calls it Anna, just like he calls every character in the movie, Anna. And this really bothers my daughter. When Joe, my son, sees Elsa, he calls out, “Anna!” And my daughter, Romy, let’s say forcefully corrects him that it’s Elsa. Because she loves Frozen so much and to her, Joe is just getting it wrong. (Complicating things is the fact that when my son says “Outside” it sounds like “Elsa,” and so my daughter is just baffled when he then turns around and calls Elsa Anna. Really mind blowing stuff for my daughter.)
We high school teachers see this more pronouncedly in our students, I think. By way of example I offer the time I agreed with a class of my seniors that Lil’ Wayne was, indeed, the greatest rapper alive, first surprising them that I was listening or even in the room, and then prompting them to never, ever, listen to him again. I tell you this is because I love Martin Luther King, Jr., and that I have long had a very anxious relationship with the popular celebration of the Federal Holiday that bears his name.
There are eleven of these days, every one of them mandated by the United States Congress in Title V of the United States Code. We celebrate our independence from Great Britain, the New Year, Christmas, Veterans Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, the inauguration of our presidents, and three holidays that have been set aside for individuals: Christopher Columbus, George Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. And on all of these days we end up celebrating things far removed from the historical moments or people who we purport to be celebrating in the first place.
And this used to bother me. A lot. When I was in my early twenties and knew everything, this really, really bothered me. With King, I hated that we had reduced him to his dream and his Nobel and to service and removed him entirely from the immensely and specifically charged and fraught period in which he lived. That we had removed him, in short, from his history. Eventually—and here I depart from a longer talk about history and memory and cynicism—I came to believe that I risked a great deal by alienating King from what Bernard Bailyn has referred to as the “popular embrace” of historical memory.
So let me tell you what I think about when I think about King. I will think about his upbringing in Atlanta, the privileged son of one of the giants of the Southern Baptist Church. By his 20s, Martin Luther King, Jr. was very near a prince of that church, and in 1954, when the 25 year-old King became pastor at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, he was one of the most sought after preachers in the country, black or white. I will think about this not to contradict the familiar idea that King embodies the upward rise of the postwar liberated South, but to remember all that King had to lose when he became the most visible leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.
I will think about the uproar caused at a meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Kansas City in 1961. When King, with his Civil Rights contingency, moved to take over the convention, a riot broke out in which one preacher was killed. Joe Jackson, King’s conservative opponent and eventual leader of the convention, publicly blamed King for the death and threw the weight of the church against King’s civil rights initiatives. I will think of this not to wallow in King’s defeat, surely one of the most tragic and bitter experiences of his life, but rather to remind myself of what he must have been going through as he moved into Albany, Georgia for the first sustained campaign of civil disobedience against the South’s segregation laws. I will think of Dr. King during the three years between his successful Selma campaign and his death in 1968. The Civil Rights movement was coming apart, with King’s commitment to nonviolence increasingly derided by other leaders of the movement. His outspoken criticism of the Vietnam War led some in the white press to label him a traitor. President Johnson stopped seeing him, and the New York publishers stopped returning his literary agent’s calls. All of this occurred during a decade when King, reviled by parts of his own government, was being mercilessly hounded by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who were convinced that King was a Communist. When his long-time surveillance of King revealed no such thing, Hoover attempted to use details of King’s personal life to blackmail him into bowing out of the movement. Despite failing health, despite pressure from the Attorney General and the deranged Hoover, despite doubts about the direction that the movement was taking, not once did King give up.
I will think about the year 1983, when the holiday was finally enacted into law, a year that saw president Reagan publicly call into question King’s loyalty to his country, and an infamous 16-day filibuster of the holiday bill by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. In death, as in life, contempt for Dr. King revealed itself among our political leaders, and perhaps more than anything else, revealed why a holiday celebrating his life is so important.
Above all, I will think about Memphis, where King was shot and killed by James Earl Ray. King had come to the city to join a strike by its sanitation workers, far from the mall in Washington, far from Oslo, far from presidents and prime ministers, and far from the glare of the national press. Along the way, writes King’s great biographer Taylor Branch, “[King] pushed his way back down to jail, [and] to new battles that left him nearly a pariah… The proud young doctor forged a prophet’s humility out of his determination to leave behind what he called “a committed life” This downward thrust makes him a transcendent figure rather than merely a romantic one.”
So you can have your idea of King, and I can have mine. What I have come to understand is that it matters that we have them together. You might, like me, be troubled by our national and cultural tendency to mythologize our historical figures, but you can also take time to reflect on their histories, and maybe you’ll understand why we are moved to do so in the first place, and why it can call us into action. Maybe you’ll read about King’s life and find that a deeper understanding of him can lead to a deeper love, too. I’ll have some work to do to fully embrace the popular image of King, or at least to give it some room alongside my own view of him, but it will be well worth it. Thank you.