Friday, April 4, 2008

live from baltimore '68

Well, not really. I don't have a laptop, so I'm in a computer lab. But anyway, this weekend at the University of Baltimore, we're looking back forty years.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed on April 4, 1968 in Memphis. Here in Baltimore, and in cities across the country, the proverbial camel's back broke as people looted, burned and destroyed their own neighborhoods out of anger and exasperation. Some of Baltimore's neighborhoods are just beginning to recover; some never recovered.

What does this have to do with me, someone who wasn't even a glimmer in anyone's eye in 1968 (in fact, the year my parents met)? For the last year, I have been helping out as an intern with Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth, UB's project studying the riots and their aftermath. My job as a student oral historian has been to interview Baltimoreans who lived through the riots about their experiences, and to transcribe and edit the interviews so they can be archived as oral histories for future researchers.

(continue reading by clicking "full post")

I initially took the internship because I was looking for part-time work, and because I have a tolerance (a preference, even) for tedious, time-consuming, single-task activity like transcribing and editing. I didn't really expect that I'd be hearing such incredible stories from such a diverse scope of interviewees, younger and older, black and white.

What I also didn't expect was what more I'd learn about Martin Luther King, whose name has become as ubiquitous as Thomas Jefferson's but whose deeds and philosophies are just as vaguely perceived. If you'd asked me what I knew about King last year, I'd probably say the same thing most people of my generation would say: something involving preacher and civil rights leader, Montgomery bus boycott, nonviolent protest, "I Have a Dream", assassinated at a young age. That guy.

One of the interviewees (PDF of the transcript here; it's worth a read if you've got the time) gave me a better sense of what it was like to be a young person at the time, pointing out that at the time of King's death he was just as much an anti-war activist as he was a civil rights activist. Before this interview, I had heard the song "Abraham, Martin & John" on the oldies station but I'd never given it a passing thought. Cheesy as it may sound to some, when I've listened to it since I think of how desperate it must have felt to have the great young leaders of one's time disappear within a decade. And on top of that, to be living with a terrible war (sadly, an experience I do know now), but with the added threat of the draft, plus the lingering uneasiness from the Cuban Missile factor on top of the next.

I don't learn history too well from books. Dates and facts tend to kind of blur together on the page. But to hear someone say, "Yes, I remember, the prom was that weekend," or "I was walking home from the bus stop when I ran into the National Guard," or "My father had the finest pharmacy in East Baltimore; he could never go back," makes it less text and more story. In German the words for "story" and "history" are the same: Geschichte, from the root word Schicht, "layer". Somehow I like this image better than "story", like the stories of a building. It has been through many layers of memory that history has begun to offer me some meaning.

Anyway, back to Martin Luther King. One book I did find useful was actually assigned reading for a class that had nothing to do with the riots project. It combined various writings by King with ways to apply his philosophies to leadership. It was interesting to me that King often referred to his nonviolent methods simply as "love". Not affectionate or romantic love, but what he considered pure Christian love, based in part in his own religious upbringing and in part on Gandhi's teachings of satyagraha, love-force or truth-force. This kind of love simply means sincere respect for each person's worth regardless of who he or she is (UU folks: 1st principle, anyone?). Not obligatory or lipservice respect, but respect that comes from a deeper, greater regard and love for humanity and life on Earth (what King might have referred to as God's Creation).

King believed that it was through this love that change was possible. He was clear in explaining that it did not mean allowing one's self to be walked over, or deferring to something one believes is wrong; it did mean approaching what is wrong and unjust with love and justice. He shared experiences wherein those who opposed him would write verbally abusive letters, saying things like, "People like you have no place doing what you're doing; you have no idea what you're talking about. You're completely messing up our country. It's despicable and disgusting and you will pay in the end." (I'm just making this up as an example, because I don't have the book with me, but it was usually something like this, with a lot of what we would now call "'you' statements" and nasty adjectives).

King could have very well responded in the exact same way; in some ways it seems only natural. But he always engaged with his opponents respectfully, politely, sympathetically and with a healthy inquisitiveness. He made it clear that he understood why they felt the way they did, and then patiently and articulately explained and defended his position. King writes that no one will listen unless they feel as though they are being listened to; no one will seek to understand unless they know that they are understood.

This concept of satyagraha or love had a particular resonance for me. It put into words what I have always felt is so universal and yet so seemingly elusive in our time: a pure and exuberant love for others. A love that goes deeper than golden rule, beyond a mindset that uses Number One as the point of reference for all of our interactions.

I especially admired this idea coming from a Christian leader like King. Not once did I read any mention of salvation as a motivator; never did I detect a tone of sanctimoniousness. For King this was not all about Christian virtuousness and piety; it was about love for love's sake alone, a value he also considered essential to his Christian identity. It holds just as much value for non-Christians like me.

Back to the is both fascinating and perplexing that the untimely death of such a person could send the country into the tailspin it did. In some ways it was the ultimate betrayal; many people felt somehow that God had betrayed them by allowing Martin Luther King to be killed, so what was the use? What was the use in not getting angry? What difference did it make anymore?

If you'd like, I encourage you to read the oral histories we have online (we're still working on a long backup of interview audio). I would love to hear any personal reflections you have if you remember April 4, 1968 and the days that followed--in Baltimore or elsewhere. We still have so much to learn.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he's gone?
He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good, they die young
I just looked around and he's gone.

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