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Monday, January 15, 2007


We’ve just come home from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service at our school. As usual, we’re a bit sweaty and full of carbohydrates. Also as usual I have some mixed feelings about this “day of service” stuff. On the positive side, the day brings together volunteers of various ages and races and connects our school to the wider community. We also do work that’s actually helpful to people, from donating blood to packing up school supplies for children who can’t afford them. There’s an overall good feeling that I really treasure. But there’s also part of me that regrets that King is celebrated with service, rather than justice. The spiritual and political heart of his message only gets a few minutes notice in the introductory program, which is always running behind schedule and full of practical announcements. For the past three years we’ve added a letter writing campaign to the day to encourage the parents to write to their representatives about current issues while their kids are packing school supplies, but it feels a pretty tame way to honor the marches of fifty years ago. I’m feeling a need to remember today the courage of the people King represented—the frustrated courageous people who sometimes got their heads beaten in—and not just whitewash the memory of one man.

This morning during the program, we heard the story of how when King was speaking in Philadelphia in 1968 he was feeling sick and needed to see a doctor. The man who treated him is now a grandparent at our school, so the incident was related that when King came to his busy waiting room, he sat down and waited his turn, although he was then famous enough that he could have gotten away with cutting in line. The story struck me perhaps differently than others there because I had just been reading “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In it King answers the white Alabama clergymen who were critical of the civil rights movement: “For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant 'Never.’"

The juxtaposition of King’s two responses to waiting struck me as having everything to do with “the wisdom to know the difference” which I’ve been writing about. It’s a spiritual challenge, knowing when to wait and when to act. In general, I think we learn more about how to wait, elevating the qualities of humility and patience that King exhibited in the first story, but neglecting to celebrate the confidence and courage exhibited in his willingness to go to an Alabama prison, and ultimately to give his life. Perhaps if part of our “service” included a willingness to serve jail time for our beliefs, we would remember King’s movement more appropriately.

But it’s hard to know what and how to protest today. Our schools are still largely segregated, but not because of one simple law that can be easily overturned. It has to do with the demographics of different neighborhoods, the tax system that funds public schools, as well as the choices of individual families. I’m not sure a march in the streets or even getting arrested would change any of it. It’s easier to pack up school supplies for kids who can’t afford them than to make sure that all our schools have adequate funding.

If I want to avoid getting disempowered altogether, I have to come back to the positive aspects of our day of service: the fact that our school is much more integrated than the United States in general; the fact that so many people worked so hard to help others; the fact that MLK Day is a holiday at all. King said, “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” I have to have faith that my children will learn enough from this day to keep bending the arc.


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