There are a thousand people who will write about Dr. King today. They will relay his words, probably repeat them verbatim because his words don’t need much in the way of explanation or analysis. The revisionists will write that he was nothing more than a pretty face and a fancy orator. And really, even if that’s true, well, what more does a movement need from a leader other than to give it the will and strength to go forth into battle? There are a thousand people who will weave words and phrases about MLK that will make your spirits soar, your eyes well, or your heart break. And probably, most likely, none of those people matter. I don’t matter.
Dr. King was younger than me when he was killed.
Let me tell you a secret. I am afraid. No. Let me correct that. I am AFRAID. When I sit at counsel’s table with a human being sitting next to me, a human being (who is not my child) for whom I am responsible, I am afraid. Let me tell you another secret. When I first started this criminal defense thing, I was so AFRAID, I didn’t think I could do it. I felt paralyzed sometimes – sick to my stomach and sweaty palms. My heart would race and my ears would ring.
So, I did what any good lawyer would do. I researched. And my research on fear led me to books (there was no Wikipedia at the time) of first hand accounts of the civil rights movement like “My Soul is Rested” by Howell Raines and Eyes on the Prize. I read accounts of folks who aren’t household names but who staged sit-ins and who took to the streets for this cause bigger than themselves.
And as I read and read I learned this: Fear is not a problem. It is normal, it is natural, but it should not paralyze you into doing nothing. Fear, as it makes your heart pound and your ears ring, should make you move faster. You pick – fight or flight? Fear should be the fuel for your fights. That trembling anxiety is nothing more than energy that you should use in your favor to propel you forward.
When you fight you know there will be blows that land in tender spots and you will be achy and bruised even if you are ultimately victorious. That hose the police turned on you hurts like a motherfucker and that dog is trained to bite. And yet the people in Montgomery and Atlanta and Norfolk and Baltimore stood there and they took those hoses and those dog bites. And they got up and did it again. Over and over and over. Despite being mistreated, beaten and arrested. They fought through the fear and the pain. Through the sweaty palms and sour stomach. Nelson Mandela said “courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” ( Now, which one of you is going to call Nelson Mandela a wuss?) They fought through the nay-sayers and the powers- that -be that told them to just wait, be patient, in due course, justice will be yours.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail“, Dr. King wrote how he was originally dismayed at the idea of being thought an extremist, but then found he was in good company:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love. . . Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” . . . Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
It’s been years since I’ve taken to the streets for a cause. I can’t even remember what it was for. And, it is only recently that I’ve found the fortitude to speak up (in my mousy little voice) against the injustices that we face on a daily basis. We write blogs and decry the awesome power of the state but without a unified force we are nothing more than armies of one. I sit in my little office in Takoma Park while another sits in his office in Connecticut, or California, or Ohio. All of us sing the same song but we are certainly not a choir, more like a cacaphony, with no voice or sound distinct enough to stand out and rise above the rest. There is no pretty faced, charismatic leader to give us courage in our fight. There is no one to compare to Jesus or Thomas Jefferson. There is just me. And you.
And I don’t matter.