Hardship creates both heroes and villains. Which will you choose?
"I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.' "
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Who was this man, who's carefully crafted words inspired masses, who's dreams moved those figurative mountains? Who was this man who's words resonate across the years?
School children scrawl "I have a dream" with markers and crayons. They quote Dr. King and draw pictures of a better world. Do they understand what they are drawing? Will their understanding grow as they do, sowing seeds for a better future? Or will the sorrows and traumas inherent in growing up distract them from their innocent dreams for the future? What makes hardship inspire one man while embittering another?
Hardship is human.
Hardship creates both heroes and villains.
Who was this man, who is celebrated today as an American hero?
I once asked a class of kindergartners if they know why we celebrate Martin Luther King Day.
"He freed the slaves!"
Not quite, little ones.
The civil war freed the slaves.
The Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.
The 13th amendment freed the slaves.
A nation torn asunder, families divided, blood, tears, politics, fear and death freed the slaves.
On paper, anyway.
In five-year old language, I try to explain.
I try to explain that Dr. King was a leader in the civil right's movement.
I try to explain that he is remembered for his wisdom, his steadfastness, his ability to inspire.
I try to explain that he could not do it alone, that the power to make change comes from lots and lots and lots of ordinary people, working together, to do the right thing.
I try to explain that the work of making our world a better place is not finished, that they can be heroes, too, if they are willing to work together.
I do not tell them what the "right thing" is.
It is dangerous to assume that I know what is right.
I try to explain that they must look within to know what is right.
I try to explain that you can "fight" without violence, that Dr. King battled segregation, not slavery, why it is impossible to be "separate but equal".
I try to explain and I hope. I hope that they will remember our talk as they grow and that with the remembrance they will construct meaning. I hope that when hardship comes, they will choose love over hate.
In the end, they might be right. Maybe, in the simplest of understandings, Martin Luther King did free the slaves. Except that just a few years ago, I walked among thousands in a march on Washington, to take a stand against sexism and racism, against bigotry and hate. So whatever Dr. King started, he did not finish. His story cannot truly be told in the past tense.
And again, I ask, who was this man? Who was this man who still inspires so many with his dream?
Several years ago, I sat in the front row of the old high school lecture hall. For two weeks I sat shivering in the air conditioning under fluorescent lights while the rest of the world bustled about in the sweltering, humid August sunshine. I sat in the front row and listened to Dr. Bernard Lafayette as he told stories of his experiences in the civil rights movement, alongside his friend and colleague, Dr. Martin Luther King.
I am in this class because Dr. King is a hero, untouchable, an icon from a not so distant past, a giant to study, to emulate, to revere. His words are magic and I want to learn more.
I am in this class because Dr. Lafayette is a hero, yet he is very real. He is not a black and white photo or a voice played and replayed, anchored in time. He is a man, flesh and blood, talking, laughing, singing, and remembering; remembering and sharing in this dimly lit, chilly room.
Dr. King remains young, larger than life, frozen in his prime. We hear recordings of his powerful voice calling to the masses and look upon iconic photos of his intense, reflective stare. Dr. Lafayette occasionally loses his train of thought; his voice sometimes shakes with age. He speaks of Dr. King and he speaks for Dr. King. He has dedicated his life to continuing the work that his friend started, the work that he was unable to finish.
I am in this class to learn about heroes. I am in this class to learn from a living, breathing, real-life hero.
Dr. Lafayette talks about humans.
Apparently Dr. King was funny and could be counted on to entertain during long road trips. His first stop in each new city would be the local pool hall where he would recruit people to the cause while shooting pool and making small talk. Apparently Dr. King was just like any other man, a man who loved his family, felt hope and fear, who made mistakes, took chances, told jokes.
He was a man like any other man, and yet not all men are heroes.
I don't know what all this means. I only know that today, on Martin Luther King day, it feels right to take some time to reflect and to feel thankful for the people who turn hardship into heroism, who inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves in a challenging world.
Who is this man? This man who had a dream?
"He freed the slaves!"
Yes, little ones. He freed the slaves. And you, you too, will have your chance to free the slaves. Sooner than you might think. Look inside yourselves and choose love. Choose love over hate. Choose love over fear. Hardship will come. Be brave and choose love.
I don't know what this all means. I only know that I believe in love. So I choose love because that's how the ordinary becomes the extraordinary. That's how heroes are made.