In this segment of Centric Commemorates, two of our colleagues reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as they walk through the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR).
On January 17, 2022, the United States will once again celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. After becoming a federal and state holiday across the U.S., MLK Day has also over the last couple of decades become a National Day of Service.
Connected directly to programs like AmeriCorps, this holiday “empowers individuals, strengthens communities, bridges barriers, creates solutions to social problems, and moves us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a ‘Beloved Community.’” It calls on each of us to discover our own path to justice and love for all people.
In that spirit, two Centric colleagues Jehanwa Grant and Shan Mukhtar and their families spent an afternoon together at the Center for Civil and Human Rights (CCHR) in Atlanta, GA. As they walked through the exhibits and read Dr. King’s writings and speeches, they shared their thoughts on the experience.
Early Perspectives on Dr. King
Jehanwa: Growing up in Jamaica I was introduced to Dr. King mid-adolescence. But I didn’t fully learn about him until college when I took an African American studies course. I was immediately amazed by how captivating his speeches were, and how committed he was as a civil rights leader. I remember reading about him going to jail 29 times and thinking, if this isn’t commitment, I don’t know what is! It taught me that the words he spoke – the inspiration he created for so many people – was backed up by his individual sacrifices. The big ones and the little ones. It made me think about what I was doing and what I could be doing to make the world a better place.
Shan: Like you, I’m an immigrant to the U.S. My grandfather was a lifelong civil rights and anti-militarization organizer in India and then after Partition, in Pakistan. The family stories told in our household were always interlaced with stories of the anti-colonial movement and human rights. In that context, I knew who Dr. King was, but there is one moment that made the connection strong for me.
It was a field trip to Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center with my school in sixth grade. Back then, I was having a hard time adjusting to life in the U.S. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be in this new culture. That trip to the King Center did two things that I’ve never forgotten. First, it gave me a real language to start to understand the racism and sexism I saw around me. That was important because when a child sees and experiences inequity with no way of putting it into a larger context, you either normalize it or you move through the world full of confusion and anger. The opportunity to learn about Dr. King and other leaders connected to him, like Bayard Rustin and Fannie Lou Hamer, shook up my sense of powerlessness. It made me want to be much more than an observer of the systems I saw doing harm to people.
The second happened as we were walking on the grounds of the King Center. I came face to face with a large statue of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi, honoring the impact his philosophy of nonviolence had on Dr. King’s work. Seeing my heritage reflected back to me at that moment moved me. I was suddenly able to draw a line from my culture and my family’s story to the U.S. civil rights movement. It was the first time I felt like I could belong here.
Memorable Moments at the CCHR
Jehanwa: The lunch counter protest simulator was most memorable exhibit. It simulated the experience of non-violent protestors as they were conducting sit-ins. With my eyes closed and my hands placed flat on the counter like the protestors did, I felt like I was there. The chair shook to simulate it being kicked repeatedly. The counter shook as it was punched. I heard crowds of people yelling at me inside and outside the restaurant, police sirens, and people whispering in my ears, threatening to harm me and my family. It was a very intense experience that lasted about two minutes. Imagine though, the two minutes that were simulated for us were a fraction of what the protestors experienced for hours and days on end. It made me feel so thankful for those brave individuals that put themselves at the center of such hatred and violence, all to make a better future for us all.
The other impactful part of my visit was listening to Dr. King’s own eulogy. He spoke about how he would like to be remembered after he had passed on:
“And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy… tell him not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize – that isn’t important… And tell him not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody… That I did try to feed the hungry… clothe the naked… visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.”
Listening to that speech made me reflect on my own life and inspired me to focus more on the importance of human interactions. Our purpose is to show love, be kind and help others. I needed that reminder. We tend to get distracted but it’s the simple things that mean the most in the end, like trying “to love somebody” and ourselves.
Shan: I agree. The theme of acting in service of others was so present throughout the exhibits.
The Resonance of Dr. King
Jehanwa: As I thought about the world in 2022, it was these words from Dr. King’s sermon, “All That We Are, We Owe,” that stood out to me:
“No man ever makes it by himself. In fact, it is this very element of dependency that makes man, man. For no individual becomes a personality until it interacts with other personalities.”
As we fight our way through this difficult pandemic, we need to remember the importance of relationships, the importance of togetherness. That’s what I’m thinking about as I spend time with my family and friends, and we work together to overcome the hardships everyone is experiencing right now. I honestly believe that unity, love and respect for others will help get us through difficult times such as these.
Shan: Yes! With the passing of Archbishop Desmond Tutu this week, I’ve been reading some of his speeches. Your thoughts on the importance of relationships and finding peace through “unity, love and respect for others” reminded me of something he said during a 1999 interview:
“I am human because you are human. My humanity is caught up in yours. And if you are dehumanized, I am dehumanized.”
To learn more about Dr. King and his philosophy of nonviolent social change, check out the King Center’s website: https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/
To find opportunities to volunteer in your community on MLK Day of Service, January 17, 2022, look here: https://americorps.gov/newsroom/events/mlk-day
Part of our Centric Commemorates series.
Through these stories, we’ll seek to learn, understand, and empathize. We’ll celebrate our differences and realize that though we have varied backgrounds and perspectives, we are one team.