How Dr. King’s day shaped my outlook

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was January 20th and I’m only now able to sit down and write about my thoughts.

Not that I hadn’t done so beforehand.   It’s simply that those days are always a tad bittersweet for me.  There’s the recollection of the years of struggle, the ensuing violence and turbulence that gripped the country.  Then, there’s the memory of the assassination; the whole “where were you when it happened” routine, followed by the anger and dismay afterwards.

I had to shed myself of that lingering anger, more so in honor of Dr. King and what he stood for rather than any attempt to spare anyone’s feelings, before I put any ink to paper.

And now, over a week later and much calmer, I’m remembering an incident that happened years ago that shaped much of who I am today and how I perceive things.  It happened when I was a freshman in high school at St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia.

It was the one of the first observations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  And in what has since become a tradition among some Americans, certain students sought to sully the overall reverence associated with its passing.  They’d gotten a hold of wanted posters from the post office-all of black men- and put them up on the walls of the school.

Members of the school’s Black Student’s League, small yet vocal, voiced our displeasure at the action and, whether it was due to not wanting to attend class or out of indignation of the racially imbued slight that was perpetrated (truthfully, maybe a bit of both), many of us summarily walked out of class.

We made our way to the flagpole and had a sit-in for the remainder of the morning.  After lunch, as many of us were trying to decide if our little protest actually meant anything and whether or not we’d have to bear any punishment for it, the disciplinarian came out to address the group.

Again, my memory might be sketchy but I don’t recall Father Kearney saying too much.  I do, however, remember the gist of what was said.  “Gentlemen, you’ve made your point.  Now, it’s time to come back inside.”

We puttered around a bit longer, still angry, indignant and hurt over the joke that was done-these were our schoolmates, our chums-but eventually we went back in for afternoon classes, not chagrined but stronger and a bit wiser to the ways of the world.

Now, over 40 years later, I remember that day and what I learned from it.  I learned that at times, you have to stand up for what you believe, even in the face of all odds and adversity.  It may be an unpopular decision and you might get bloodied-in one form or another-doing so but you have to have the courage to carry on.  It was Dr. King’s message then and it’s still his message today.  So, as we ponder just where we are as a nation or whether or not we’ve made it or if Dr. King’s dream has been realized, let’s ask ourselves the question: Are we still willing to fight the fight?

I remember and appreciate the Jesuits of the Prep who allowed us to voice our displeasure at the politically charged gag by staging a non-violent protest in response to it.  I also remember the few white faces I saw out there with us, showing solidarity in the face of this small instance of oppression. It’s important because that too was a part of Dr. King’s message; that each of us is in it with the other.  And as I and my children grow, so do you and yours.

So the question becomes again, are we, all of us, still willing to fight the fight?  It’s a viable question and one that I hope we’ll answer more fully each coming year, not only on Martin Luther King Jr. Day but on the remaining 364 as well.

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