It’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday holiday and I spend time looking at two portraits among many on my wall in my office – Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. The photo of Washington is a copy of a Civil War era silver print portrait with the body stiff and formal. My favorite is King’s portrait which is a more candid black and white of him at his desk with his elbow on the desktop and his hand on his forehead as he anxiously stares out into nothing. Looking at my wall, I will also mention my photo of Rosa Parks in her modest dress and eyeglasses standing impatiently in front of the fingerprint table with a towering but also bored patrol office giving her instructions. A few years ago I read each of their autobiographies and I recommend them.
Turning from the portraits to my computer, I let out a very awkward laugh, in context, when I read a post by a young student on a website that rates teachers and schools (and which, in my mind after reading many of the entries with my jaw dropped, should do a better job of controlling this young adult-authored content.) Here’s the post:
Sep 28, 2006 She is so evil. [..] I’m in high school now and nothing she’s taught me has helped so far!! And she promised it would!
Wow. This is an actual true post by a student talking about her math teacher in an affluent part of Texas in a private school, presumably raised by able and loving parents and now, I assume, in her senior year of some college and, gasp, voting. I’m blown away. What’s worse, after some reflection, I don’t think she is alone, nor do I think this attitude is relegated to 8th graders. I see it every day when I read the front page of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.
I draw on these black leaders because it is Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend. I’m not in any way making a comment on racial equality or lack of it. Rather, I am drawing from great people that in my mind have the very same thing to say that all great people do.
In 1953, Martin Luther King Jr. had good reason to feel repressed, hamstrung, and pushed down. He, like his peers, naturally and understandably could blame someone else for whatever fortune they found themselves in. Read a few words from a speech he delivered to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that same year. This is years before his role in the Civil Rights movement.
“One of the most common tendencies of human nature is that of placing responsibility on some external agency for sins we have committed or mistakes we have made. We are forever attempting to find some scapegoat on which we cast responsibility for our actions. Herein lies the tragic misuse of much of our modern psychology, particularly what is known as depth psychology or psychoanalysis. [..] But the tragedy lies in the fact that many modem men have used this theory as an attractive defense mechanism.”
Almost 100 years before this speech, Booker T. Washington wrote in his autobiography Up from Slavery:
“I have begun everything with the idea that I could succeed, and I never had much patience with the multitudes of people who are always ready to explain why one cannot succeed.”
Many people know the history of King. Booker T. Washington was a child slave in the coal mines who become a civil leader after the Civil War and founded the first university for African Americans. Booker T. Washington was a slave. There was no ambiguity that others were responsible for his early life’s misfortune. He, like Martin Luther King, Jr., had every right to recoil from the oppression that was his community’s everyday life. This was written in 1901:
“Among a large class, there seemed to be a dependence upon the government for every conceivable thing. The members of this class had little ambition to create a position for themselves, but wanted the federal officials to create one for them. How many times I wished then and have often wished since, that by some power of magic, I might remove the great bulk of these people into the country districts and plant them upon the soil – upon the solid and never deceptive foundation of Mother Nature, where all nations and races that have ever succeeded have gotten their start – a start that at first may be slow and toilsome, but one that nevertheless is real.”
He also wrote:
“I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”
What are we teaching our children? I wonder this as I listen to the politicians. What do we believe ourselves? Are these ideas lost to a time and attitude that are no longer relevant?
A few years ago President Obama said in a 2013 speech to Morehouse College:
“Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep [me] down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing,”
That message didn’t go well. It was considered political and the President’s own left was very vocal against it. An example blog on Twitter:
“Some people get so upset when you don’t bow at the feet of President Personal Responsibility. #NoTavis“
I don’t think this message should be political at all, left or right. Accepting personal responsibility and the idea that most all success is simply a lot of work doesn’t mean we have to accept that other environmental conditions don’t exist. I do not think that successful happy people had only good teachers, great families, and a silver spoon. One of my favorite leaders, whom I was lucky enough to work for, was Steve Jobs. He says the same thing but without any political context.
His single, college-aged mother gave up Steve for adoption on the premise that his new parents would be college graduates. A last minute decision left him with an adopted mother who didn’t finish college and an adopted father who didn’t even finish high school. In his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005 Steve stated:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
He is saying the very same thing these great black leaders said. It’s all the same – independent of race, politics, education, gender, sexual preference, or class. That instinct that Martin Luther King talks about in 1953 exists in all of us, just as that little 8th grade girl demonstrated in her post. The instinct is to find reason outside of ourselves when things don’t go our way.
I do not mean to say that environment doesn’t exist; that injustice and inequalities and simple ineptitude and ignorance are not part of our daily lives. I am saying that our game is to overcome it.
That’s the fun of it.