By Syreeta McFadden | In 1968, when my father was a teenage boy in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. went there to support the city’s striking sanitation workers. He marched with King and thousands of other protesters, and in the violence that erupted afterward, the police shot another black boy, Larry Payne. They claimed he was a looter. King called Payne’s mother to console her, but a planned visit never happened. King was murdered just a few days later.
When I was a young girl, my father transcribed from memory some of King’s great speeches and asked me to memorize them myself. Later, he bought old records with recordings of the speeches — ‘‘The Drum Major Instinct,’’ ‘‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’’ — and when I wasn’t too busy being a child, he would make me listen to them, again and again. By the time I was in high school, writing essays about the civil rights movement came easily. I had a vernacular and a mode of analysis, and also a discipline. I had learned by repetition how to question authority.
Now I am a teacher, seeking a similar discipline in my students. Early on a Wednesday in April, I found myself standing before my English-composition class at New York’s Borough of Manhattan Community College. My students are earnest, hard-working, even brilliant, but many of them face significant challenges. They are first- or second-generation Americans or immigrants (from China, Georgia, Ghana, Mexico, Nigeria, Ukraine). They hold down full-time jobs. Some of them are raising their own kids.
We were reading King’s ‘‘Letter From Birmingham Jail.’’ They groaned about the length, but I ignored them. King’s craft, I told them, is demonstrated in how he argues so persuasively for positions that seem at first to be in opposition, and to multiple audiences — not simply ‘‘My Dear Fellow Clergymen’’ but the public at large, which in 1963 may have supported desegregation but also recoiled from the spectacle of protest, with its intimation of lawlessness and chaos.
The class was also struggling with an essay that the psychologist Erich Fromm wrote that same year, ‘‘Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem.’’ He argued that ‘‘freedom and the capacity for disobedience are inseparable; hence any social, political and religious system which proclaims freedom, yet stamps out disobedience, cannot speak the truth.’’
We returned to King’s letter, in which he draws a distinction between just and unjust laws. They didn’t know about this King, I found, the one who fought the law. In their view, the civil rights movement was embodied in King the Christlike leader, who stands for peace, love and brotherhood.
I told the students that King went to jail a lot for peace, love and brotherhood.
We talked about Baltimore, where the police had just killed Freddie Gray and street protests were swelling to an uprising. My students were skeptical of headlines and commentary that called for nonviolent protest. One of the students noted that the police were violent, too, and they were placing people in mortal danger just to protect some buildings from being damaged.
‘‘A building is not more valuable than a person,’’ she said. Most of the others nodded in agreement. More began to speak. The rote discussion was becoming impassioned, cacophonous:
‘‘But there’s a difference between rioting and peaceful protest. …’’
‘‘Are we saying property is more valuable than a human being?’’
‘‘That’s like saying to protest is unlawful. …’’
‘‘What does ‘peaceful’ even mean?’’
My most beautifully complex thinker was from Venezuela. His English was fair, but when he spoke, he often discovered nuances within the language that might have been lost to those who were born to it. ‘‘I’m not sure you can have nonviolence without some kind of violence,’’ he said.
He pointed to other protests in Venezuela and Mexico. Peaceful protests that became violent clashes, students who dissented and disappeared. Now there was immediate consensus in the classroom. ‘‘King is saying that you have to be disobedient if you want justice,’’ one student said.
‘‘Negative peace isn’t peaceful, it’s just obedience,’’ another agreed.
I was only a witness now, recording their analysis, breaking chalk against a blackboard trying to capture the thoughts of these students who sat in neat rows, grasping for a kind of equilibrium. ‘‘Wait,’’ I said, ‘‘I want to catch what you just said. I need to remember this.’’
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