Saturday, January 16, 2016

Andrew or Martin?

Yesterday was our beloved Martin Luther King Ceremony at school. Each part of it was wonderful—poems recited by 1st and 4th grade, an eloquent short talk by an 8th grader, a passionate poem by a staff member (my daughter!), powerful slides from the 60’s Civil Rights Movement and of course, songs, songs, songs, sung so beautifully by the children. 

Though each part was well done, I felt unhappy with the total effect. There is a feng shui to such ceremonies and our Community Center simply was too big for the number of people we had to create the powerful intimacy the event has had and deserves. Space is a key component of Soul and something we need to keep in mind. And Time too. Near the end, everyone was nervous about Car Pool time and the closing chords of the building cadence felt marred by the tyranny of the clock.

Still though the tear ducts opened for me when I caught sight of a 2nd grader with eyes closed singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free," feeling it from the bottom of her heart and with every cell in her body. “We Shall Not Be Moved” sung by young children is a wonder to behear and broke the title’s promise—I believe we were moved. So don’t get me wrong—Soul found its way in spite of the large space and less intimate lighting. But next year, we’re going to a smaller room.

I gave the opening remarks and I include them here:

Who knows whose picture is on a $20 bill? (Three hands go up and one student gets it—Andrew Jackson). Who knows anything about him? (No hands) When I in 4th or 5th grade, I read a biography of Andrew Jackson and decided he was my hero. I had my father paint a picture of him and every day when I woke up, there he was looking down at me.

Turns out that biography didn’t tell the whole story. Jackson had hundreds of slaves, often had them whipped and he also sold slaves. He had bitter feuds with other politicians and killed a man in a duel who he felt had insulted his wife. He went to war against various Native American groups in Florida, tricked them into selling their land so there could be more plantations with slaves and when he was President and signed the Indian Relocation Act, taking thousands of Native Americans from their land and moving them to a reservation in Oklahoma.  Their forced march became known as “The Trail of Tears.”

People like Andrew Jackson who did bad things can get on money or get airports named after them, but they don’t get national holidays like Martin Luther King. That means that our country is still trying to erase the gap between what it promised—“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for ALL its people and the way it actually treated—and still treats— different groups of people—Native Americans, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, women, workers, gay people, poor people and so on.

And make no mistake about it—despite maddening setbacks, the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice. A few years ago I showed a photo of my daughter and her African-American husband and told you how their marriage would have been illegal some 50 years ago. Now they can walk down the street without people’s heads turning. And some of us here can introduce our parents Mary and Susan or Rob and Richard and people will simply say “Nice to meet you.”

But of course, not all people understand that the content of our character is more important than any superficial difference like race, religion, class, sexual preference. There are plenty of people who still worship Andrew Jackson's hateful values and they need to be educated. There are plenty of politicians— some of them running for President!—who come out swinging with Jacksonian ideas to cheering crowds—and they need to be stopped. 

So we have days like this to tell the stories to both teach what really matters and also help us figure out how to speak out against bad laws and practices and stand up for the good and decent. Almost 50 years after Mr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there is still plenty of work to do. Maybe 50 years from now, children will hear the stories about what happened in this country and think, “What was wrong with those people? Why would they treat each other like that?” Wouldn’t that be nice.

That's why we have a national holiday called Martin Luther King Day and we don’t have one called Andrew Jackson Day. What would we do on Andrew Jackson day? Teach children how to treat people badly? Make plans to make people leave their homes and go to Oklahoma? Give classes on whipping techniques and how to win a duel?

So that’s a good lesson. People who stand up for truth and justice and fair treatment of all people may be treated badly while they’re alive, but they’ll be remembered And the best way to remember them is not to worship them like a celebrity, but to think about what they stood for and learn how to stand up ourselves, to be as thoughtful, courageous and compassionate as they were then in our lives here and now. Each of us from our little corner of the universe. It could mean speaking up for a friend, speaking out at a business board meeting, speaking out in a school staff meeting. In the little and big things—size doesn’t matter. The habit of speaking out courageously and living a life pursuing your happiness alongside the happiness of all. That's what counts.

That’s what we’re here for today. As we learn something about Martin Luther King today, let's think about how he had to use his mind to plan his strategies, his imagination to dream a happier future, his heart to reach out to all people, his body to put himself out on the street and cross an actual bridge in Selma to cross the larger bridge of the gap between our ignorance and our humanitarian promise. Let’s look at what he had to do to accomplish what he did and then think about what we have to do to keep his work moving forward.

Okay? Let’s go!

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