I spent my Sunday lying by the ocean here in South Florida, reading one of three books I currently have in rotation, Caucasia by Danzy Senna (the other two are Food Fight and Malcolm X Speaks). Caucasia is a novel that ventures deep into race from the perspective of a young girl who almost transcends it as she grows up in a biracial family in the 1970s Boston “race wars”. It’s also the first novel I’ve read by a biracial author, and I find it inexplicably soothing.
In my iPod earbuds, the words of MLK played out in the background – how I was reading and listening, I don’t know… like I said I have three books in rotation, so I guess I’m somewhat of a hopeless multi-tasker – but I thought it fitting, since we just marked the birthday of this great leader, whose words are tragically still relevant today, on Saturday, January 15th.
Some of his words were eerily applicable to the political state we find ourselves in now.
“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
This made me think specifically of the most current chain reaction of hate we saw and still see pre- and post- Tuscon, and the seemingly endless bickering and finger-pointing we are all guilty of within our own democracy, while trying to give health, food and rights to our own people, and on a grander scale with respect (or lack thereof) to our global neighbors and cultures different from ours.
But it also inspired me to do some digging about this prescient man and what inspired him to want to transcend race like Danzy Senna in Boston, or what moved him to want to help and empower people like I and so many other young activists want to do…and I was surprised to find that MLK had spent some time on a farm during his youth and was inspired by what he found there.
Here are some excerpts from an NPR article on King’s life-changing time in the country up North:
Martin Luther King Jr. could hardly believe his eyes when he left the segregated South as a teenage college student to work on a tobacco farm in Connecticut.
“On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see,” he wrote his father in June 1944. “After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to.”
Byer says King and other students often worked in temperatures that reached 100 degrees or higher. The students, who were earning money to pay for college, made about $4 per day, Byer said. They lived in a dormitory built at the edge of the tobacco field.
Until then, King was thinking of other professions such as becoming a lawyer, Conard-Malley said. But after his fellow Morehouse College students at the tobacco farm elected him their religious leader, he decided to become a minister.
“Perhaps if he hadn’t come to Connecticut, hadn’t picked tobacco up here, hadn’t felt like a free person, hadn’t felt what life was like without segregation and been elected the religious minister, he may not have become such a leader in the civil rights movement,” Conard-Malley said.
You never know where you’ll find inspiration or what experience may change your life course. As one of the students from this article, Nicole Byer, who is working on a documentary about King’s life said, “Everything right now influences us. Any small experience can change the direction of what we do right now.”
And when we do decide on what we want to do, I like to remember these words (which seem indispensable to community work and the theme I keep bringing up in the issue of food justice) …
“A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Happy MLK Day