By Wanda Coleman.
As I reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I remember a time when I was in fourth grade watching a documentary on his life. As the projector reel spun, I took notice of two of my classmates – Edward & Timothy – who sat on the floor next to each other watching the documentary together. Edward was black; Timothy was white. In the safety of the classroom setting, we all watched this film at the ages of 9 & 10, and saw how cruel the world could be, and how the courage of one man could make a great difference in the world. After the documentary, with tears in her eyes, my fourth grade teacher made it a point to talk of Edward and Timothy. She believed it was a beautiful thing to see that what Dr. King fought so hard to accomplish regarding equal rights and social justice was playing out right before our eyes.
I didn’t quite understand why my teacher was so emotional at the time. But today I do. Tears were in her eyes because a piece of the dream that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of was taking place right there in her classroom. Little black boys and girls, and little white boys and girls were in the same space, at the same time, and at the moment, on the same accord living in peace together. In that particular year (1979-1980), I was part of desegregation, or the first busing experience in Cleveland, Ohio to bring racial balance to the school systems.
In the safety of the classroom, we were just fourth grade students seeking to learn, to grow, and to create lasting friendships. In the safety of the classroom the issues of race, racism, equality and justice seemed so small. Then the bell rang. The sounding of the bell jolted us all back into reality that the world is not as small nor as friendly as the classroom. Documentaries that were watched in classroom had real life commentaries and implications on the walk to the bus in neighborhoods where differences were not embraced.
Those real life commentaries continue today in the 21st Century. The nation is watching on the television screen and on social media all of the things that I watched in a documentary as a fourth grade student. We are watching as social injustice on behalf of African Americans and people of color become the norm, rather than the exception. We are watching police brutality take place without police officers being held accountable for their actions. We are watching race relations become more divisive and indifferent as these topics are discussed. As I personally wrestle with what is taking place in our land, I ask the questions: When will we overcome?” When will social ills and -isms that plague African Americans and other people of color move beyond a mere conversation with no meaningful action? “
As an ordained minister and an administrator in theological education I wrestle with the silence of many in theological education and in the church in regard to these questions, and often wonder, “Where is the best place to have this conversation?” In the pulpit? In the home? In the classroom? All of these places are platforms for this conversation, and the conversation should not be limited to only these three places. Some believe that the conversation of social injustice should stay in the confines of the classroom, but I disagree because life does not happen only in the confines of pedagogical instruction and theological discourse.
Life happens in the parks and recreation of Cleveland, Ohio where a 12 year boy is killed within seconds of officers responding. Life happens in the towns of Nigeria where Boko Haram is unjustly killing those within its reach, but remains an afterthought in the news. Confining such a conversation to only the classroom gives us an opportunity to have great dialogue, but relieves us of the responsibility of actually doing something about the problem.
Life in general, but specifically for the purpose of this blog, Black life, is precious, important and needs to be considered a part of the theological problem. And until Black life is considered in the equation of all life that matters, the conversation will need to continue way beyond the classroom. The best way to honor Dr. Martin Luther King’s life and legacy is to keep the conversation going by demonstrating positive action and movement in the fight for freedom. Just as in 1963 when Dr. King gave the famous “I Have A Dream” speech, as a people we must continue in great pursuit of his dream one day becoming a reality in every facet of the human condition.