My Lessons from Dr. King

On Saturday, late into the night, I was uncharacteristically sad. Aiming to numb my mind with a generous heaping of Facebook memes and articles that I would “save for later” (really tho?), I opened up my browser. Many years ago, I had set my homepage to at the suggestion of a dear friend – she said it would help frame the Internet as a place of learning instead of distraction. On Saturday night, it fulfilled this promise. One of the headlines on BBC was a commentary on the “greatest American speech,” an unplanned eulogy of MLK Jr. delivered by Robert Kennedy. Falling for the clickbait, I dived in. But I didn’t find the speech by RFK particularly inspiring. I opted instead for the source of those remarks, someone whom I admired greatly and whose 50th death anniversary our nation had just mourned. I found myself somehow on YouTube watching a recording of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. King was at his most poetic and prophetic, talking about his desire to do God’s will even if he couldn’t live forever, even if he couldn’t join us in the Promised Land. It was vastly unsettling that he spoke those words on the day before he was murdered. It was the type of unsettling that travels from the mind into the body, creating a knot of inexpressible feeling within your gut before it finally penetrates your soul, and makes you question everything you know. Suffice it to say, my sadness had been replaced by the requisite awe with which we are called upon to hear Dr. King’s oration.

I sat there in the dark on Saturday night, listening to King’s voice rise up and down, scolding me for seeing the blackness on skin instead of the darkness in the content of my character. As an Indian immigrant and an American citizen, I thought about my inability to place myself in the history of the civil rights movement. Should I venerate it for its similarities to Gandhi’s satyagraha? Should I find myself in a past life, as one of thousands of peoples of color standing at Dr. King’s marches? Should I acknowledge the racism and deeply ingrained colorism of my own community, my intimate family even? If I do so, am I still allowed to side with Dr. King today?

These questions with no answers settle in the recesses of our minds, only to appear in the too-rare moments of self-doubt that are profound enough to be termed “reflection”. I still didn’t have answers but I knew I loved the voice of this man Dr. King. So I found myself in that comfort zone on Saturday night, as I progressively watched more and more of King’s mountaintop speech. Earlier that day, I had to read passages from the Hebrew Bible for a class. For better or worse, the pervasiveness of my Divinity School education caused me to connect my reading to what I was hearing. I started to hear a greater significance in the mountaintop that he referred to, a placement of Dr. King as the Moses who would lead the enslaved and mistreated people of God to a promised land. A land that he would not attain: “I may not get there with you,” he so presciently said. Just as Moses could not go all the way to Israel. Goosebumps spread far and wide on me. I shut the laptop and laid in the darkness, pondering our untapped potential for goodness and Godliness. Do any of us struggle for the mountaintop anymore? Or do we simply circle around the base of the mountain, having a reverence for revolution without the courage to actually revolt?

Sunday and Monday passed by as routine days do. Tuesday morning I showed up to class characteristically late. I typed notes mindlessly as routine students do. The professor droned on, monotone, about the Hebrew Bible for 40 minutes before coming to a final point about the adaptation of the Jewish Exodus myth throughout histories and mediums. In an amazing stroke of coincidence, he started to talk about Dr. King’s mountaintop speech and its relation to Exodus. As he recited words from the final part of the speech, a hesitation snuck into his typically steady voice, which turned into a halting, and bloomed into full-blown tears. He had to excuse himself for a moment, and I was left utterly shocked. It was that same unsettling feeling from Saturday night. Something inside me was reeling. Here was an old white man working at Harvard University, easily vilified as an epitome of privilege, reduced to tears in front of his class by Dr. King’s words.

One of my classmates asked a few minutes later, “why was that so meaningful to you?” To this the professor responded in a simple honesty:

“I grew up in the segregated South and lived through the Civil Rights movement. That was an incredibly different time. I saw Dr. King bring together people from the extreme left and right. He gave me hope that progress was possible, and even if we’re in a dark tunnel today, I have hope because of Dr. King. When I visit my relatives in the South, I see the change with my own eyes. For him to make the speech foreseeing his death, to put himself in the place of Moses…”

He trailed off as tears overtook him again. Once composed, he was able to make a joke about his age and becoming more sensitive. He resumed all the demeanor of a man who used to be a Dean at Harvard, but with one concession – a crack in the veneer. Vision and connection for a few seconds between one human affected by, and many humans unaware of, the feeling of living alongside Dr. King. After class, I gave the professor a hug and thanked him for being real.

It was one of my favorite moments all year in Divinity School. Too often in the sterile idea chambers of these academic towers, we dehumanize ourselves and our subjects of study. In a misguided attempt to meet arbitrary scholarly standards, we press our capacities for feeling and emotion into a neat package and leave it at the classroom door. But this is frankly foolish in the Humanities. Another wise professor of mine recently said:

“All forms of study produce knowledge. The sciences and social sciences produce knowledge that is useful for others. The humanities, on the other hand, produces knowledge that transforms the knower. Transformation is the sole purpose.”

Similarly, too often in the daily mill of our lives, we allow our patterns to grind us into mere fractions of what we could be. With hamster-wheel cynicism, we refuse to believe that a book, or a movie, or a great human’s speech, could transform us, truly change our lives. Why not? When the words are as profound as a King’s, when our hearts are as open and vulnerable as my professor’s, why can’t we be transformed? Dr. King left us 50 years ago. But we have to pick up our burdens and journey on through the desert, for we are yet to reach the promised land where we may bask in the sunshine of King’s dream. Let us continue to be transformed, for King is far from a figure of history, but a judgement upon the living, urging us from within our hearts to satisfy his radical visions. We can start by listening.

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