My Year Abroad..., Politics...

Martin Luther King and the speech that changed everything…

I find it very difficult to write about ‘serious things’. Take this post, for example, I sat down to write with all the enthusiasm and interest I normally have when I start writing. But then I just sat there staring at the keyboard.

I think there’s two main reasons why I struggle with it. The first is that I worry that I don’t have the skill to do a subject such as this justice, I can write about silly things and happily ramble on, but if I’m given a serious and important topic I panic a little because I think maybe my writing ability won’t live up to the subject matter at hand.

The second problem I face is that I don’t feel like I have the authority to write about something like this. I have never been the victim of racism, I have never lived in segregated America or really even seen much racism taking place. So, with that said, what right do I have to say anything at all on the topic? I suppose it’s a fear of being wrong, of having someone who knows a lot more than me tell me that I should shut up and go back to writing about my life; the only thing I know well enough to be able to comment on.

This is a stupid attitude, don’t worry you don’t need to tell me. If we all only stuck to writing about things we’d personally experienced then how would we ever get any balanced opinions? In fact, often an outsider is able to see things which someone directly involved is unable to. Also, of course many of the people writing about historic moments, even from fairly modern history, weren’t there because they most likely weren’t even born when it took place!

I apologise if you feel like this note on Martin Luther King Jr. doesn’t do him or his life and work justice but I’m writing it anyway because I feel like I need to break through this barrier that stops me from writing what I want to, this blog is meant to be the place I can do that after all.

Last night I watched a BBC programme with my parents about the run up to King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom which was to celebrate the 50 year anniversary of that day. As you would expect, the programme was equal parts touching and inspiring. It got me thinking about my own personal experiences of America when I was living there.

When I was on my year abroad I was lucky enough to take a trip to Washington DC. My most prominent memory of that trip is when we went to the Lincoln Memorial. I stood at the top of those steps, probably just a few feet away from where King stood and made the speech that changed everything. I looked out and imagined what it must have been like for him to stand there and see those hundreds of thousands of people listening to what he was saying, all there because of him and the people standing around him on those steps. In that moment I thought about what had happened there and I remembered the fact that a few weeks earlier I’d watched Obama get sworn in for his second term and it felt like all those problems from 50 years ago had gone away for good.

Several months later, at the end of my year, I went travelling around the states with some friends. As I’ve written about before, we went to many sites which were key players in the Civil Rights Movement. Some were inspiring, such as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis TN – once a sight of devastation as Martin Luther King lost his life just across the street from it, now a museum which fills you with joy at the distance the country has come.

Some were not so inspiring. When we drove through the city of Jackson MS we were shocked. We went to the visitor centre and got a driving tour booklet which directed us to various key sites related to the Civil Rights Movement. Many of these sites looked like they had been forgotten…abandoned. This was not the shining example of progress we had become accustomed to seeing, we were saddened by the fact that a city which had been so important to such a passionate and long fought movement had been left in this way. The booklet we had, clearly published long before we were given it, claimed that much of the city was undergoing restoration…due to be completed in 2002.

When I was in Baltimore MD, a friend and I were stopped by the police who had been radioed to come and find us. We had gone on the hunt for Edgar Allan Poe’s house which is, unfortunately and unbeknownst to us, now in a particularly dangerous neighbourhood. When the police found us they simply told us we had to leave, when we asked why they said ‘you’re two young, white girls in a black neighbourhood, it’s not safe’. This kind of clear division along racial lines was something I had never experienced before and it shocked me deeply. Here was me naïvely watching Obama on TV and thinking that all the problems of race had disappeared and yet there are places where police patrol simply to keep the peace between people of different races. It might sound stupid, but I had no idea.

I’ve read a lot of people’s opinions about the impact that Martin Luther King, and in particular the speech he made that day, had on the success of the Civil Rights Movement. While most are praising him, I’ve read some that doubt his impact, that question whether that day did what it said it did. I guess when you go to a place like Jackson, and I’m sure that’s just the tip of the iceburg; we all know the facts when it comes to the inequality which is still prevalent in the States, it’s easy to argue that there’s still so much to be done. It’s just as much, if not more, of a situation fraught with extremes as it was in the 60’s; while King was going for meetings in the White House, black people throughout America were struggling, now Obama is in the White House and yet there are still plenty of African Americans who have no hope of ever fulfilling their American Dream.

So, of course, it takes looking at how far America has come, not how far it has left to go. America is a wonderful country, something which I learned when I lived there last year, and not an opinion which is shared by many who aren’t Americans themselves! I regard Barack Obama highly (you can read my top fives on him here) not only for the reasons mentioned in that blog and for the fact that I tend to agree with him ideologically but because he has had to face the struggles of a country which is only just beginning to understand its own views on race. There are many problems which the U.S still needs to overcome but, that being said, I don’t believe you could doubt for a minute the impact which King’s work and that speech had on improving the situation. He instilled in those thousands of people that were watching 50 years ago a feeling of hope and a determination not to give up which is how America got to where it is today.

Something I like to think about is how King would react if he knew that Obama was in the White House, if he knew that his work had allowed that to happen. It makes me feel better about the world.

That’s all for now
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One thought on “Martin Luther King and the speech that changed everything…

  1. Pingback: My top fives of this week…#3 | My Top Fives...

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