The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.
February is Black History Month, something which--to be totally honest--I'm usually completely unaware of. I'm not just unaware of when Black History Month occurs, but pretty ignorant about Black History in general.
Last week I began reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. I had purchased it a while back at the same time that I bought Gandhi's autobiography. I've been following the trail of non-violent thought from Jesus to the Anabaptists to the Quakers to Leo Tolstoy to Gandhi to Martin Luther King (and points in-between). So MLK was the next stop on my journey. I only discovered last week after getting half-way into the book that February is Black History Month. I learned this by seeing a placard on the side of a bus.
Dr. King's autobiography was not intentionally written by it's subject, in the same way that Gandhi's autobiography was. King was assassinated before he could write this work himself. Instead, his autobiography was assembled by King scholar Clayborne Carson (at the request of Coretta Scott King) by carefully gathering and collating King's public and private writings into a cohesive narrative. Carson did a masterful job, as King's voice and personality consistently shines through. One really has the sense that this is the autobiography King would have written had his life not been cut short.
I had not expected to become so quickly engrossed in this book. Obviously I knew who Martin Luther King was, but this was my first opportunity to really see what an amazing man he was. King was an intellectual giant, yet also an extremely humble and honest man. He was a brilliant theologian and scholar, but consistently chose to identify himself with the lowest of the low in society. He was incredibly, well ... Christian ... in the true sense of the word.
Besides being impacted by the encounter with King as a person, this book is also teaching me about the events of the Civil Rights movement and the various personalities involved. A consternating thought keeps bubbling up in my mind: Why was I never taught about this in public school? The Civil Rights movement was an epic moment in American history and it's effects continue to reverberate--most recently and obviously in the election of Barack Obama. Yet I can't recall being taught about it in school. Perhaps because I grew up in a 99% white community in Colorado it was deemed irrelevant, just as I've typically viewed Black History Month as personally irrelevant.
Now I'm realizing that Black History, from slavery to emancipation to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights movement and beyond is not just "for black people". It is an integral component of American history. Ditto for Native American history. Looking back, I realize how narrow and anglo-centric my public school history education was. I was not given anything approximating a complete picture of American history. And, sadly, neither has my son. I'm going to try to get him to read this book.
I also find myself thinking as I read this book that if I had been an adult during the 1960's, I hope I would have been one of those whites who joined into the Civil Rights movement to offer solidarity and support. I self-flatteringly imagine that I might've trekked to the South and gotten onto the front lines, as so many people of good conscience from all over the country did. But that thought is immediately followed by a more uncomfortable one: Where are people being oppressed today and what am I doing about it?