By Danielle Prostrollo
Today marks another Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a welcomed day off for many, a few mattress and car sales, and another cursory glance at the I Have a Dream speech.
But King was more than his iconic speech. He was a normal person who believed poor and working people should have equal opportunity to live with dignity and decency – a conversation we are still having today.
In a sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King made it clear that “the ‘no D’ is as significant as the PhD and the man who has been to ‘No House’ is as significant as the man who has been to Morehouse” (King, p. 246). In a recent Ted talk, Ken Robinson similarly chided the reality that certain jobs have been put on a pedestal and others disparaged.
To illustrate this point, Robinson recounts the story of a young firefighter:
“When I got to the senior year of school, my teachers didn’t take it seriously. This one teacher didn’t take it seriously. He said I was throwing my life away if that’s all I chose to do with it; that I should go to college, I should become a professional person, that I had great potential and I was wasting my talent to do that.” He said, “It was humiliating. It was in front of the whole class and I felt dreadful. But it’s what I wanted, and as soon as I left school, I applied to the fire service and I was accepted. You know, I was thinking about that guy recently, just a few minutes ago when you were speaking, about [the] teacher, because six months ago, I saved his life.”
The young firefighter pulled his former teacher and wife out of the wreckage of a car crash.
The world needs firefighters, garbage collectors, cleaners. Every person deserves dignity and the chance to earn a decent wage. Businessmen, lawyers, and the wealthy do not hold the monopoly on living value. News stories about the minimum wage economy (e.g. Walmart wages and food stamps) put King’s belief in a current societal context.
We know the “I Have a Dream” speech but today we need to look beyond the myth at the imperfect man who battled the crushing pressures of fighting for what he believed in and can perhaps consider what we believe in and how we, too, might stand up for it.
A couple of books that help dispel the mythology of MLK, Jr.:
The Radical King, by Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Cornel West
This book is a collection of King’s speeches organized and introduced by West to highlight the progression of King’s values over time
Death of a King, by Tavis Smiley
Smiley takes interviews of King’s widow, close friends, and scholars and puts together a realistic look at the last year of King’s life
A link to Ken Robinson’s whole Ted talk (video and transcript)