Like many young students in America, I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in grade school. Every January, teacher’s lesson plans focused on the life of Dr. King and the ideology of nonviolence. Regardless of the subject, Dr. King’s legacy was integrated into the curriculum. In class, we examined video recordings, still-images, and readings. In the hallways and in the classroom, Dr. King’s quotes and images were everywhere. As classmates, we could only imagine the trials and tribulations of living in a conflicted world of love and hate.
Whether due to newspapers, radio, videos, or photographers, the only images recorded in my mind regarding the life and legacy of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement depict tension and discourse. My perspective is not unique because I remember watching television commercials commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. King, and seeing my father’s body language and facial expressions shift as footage of water hoses and attack dogs forcefully plunged Blacks against building walls. Another observation was watching my mother scurry out of the living room when images of protesters holding signs, “I Am Somebody,” flashed across the television. I am certain that these images resurrected their suppressed memories from the segregated south.
Although my parents were never enslaved and no longer lived in the South, their responses to the horrific events of racism and discrimination triggered darkness and discomfort. As I watched intensely I was shocked that there was no verbal response, which led me to believe that my parent’s mastery to mask their emotions had reached perfection. To complicate matters more, my parent’s facial expressions, body language, and deep breaths were sure signs of compassion fatigue.
In my mind, my parents suppressed the vivid images and memories of violence that headlined newspapers and television news breaks. At some point in their journey, my parents found a way to silence the echoes of pain and suffering of the South to protect their own attitude and perception of America. Moreover, I believe that my parents psychologically and emotionally detached from the historical context of the South to create a self-image different and distant from history’s past.
My parents, by no fault of their own, underestimated the impact of segregation on their individual and collective identity; therefore perpetuating a heightened level of sensitivity that is too often shared amongst historically marginalized individuals and groups. Moreover, I believe that my parents developed a level of cynicism to soften the pain and agony of hopelessness. Finally, I believe that my parents redirected their feelings to avoid acting out of fear and hurt.
My parents are not alone! In fact, many share the pain and suffering of the Civil Rights Movement. Behind closed doors, historically marginalized individuals continue to wallow in their emotions because of the lack of progress in the nation, while those in power recycle systems of oppression. This is not a formula for peace and justice. My keynote, The View From the Mountaintop, challenges America to break the silence. It’s time to move the conversation from behind closed doors to the general public.
For decades, students have struggled to understand their role in advancing the lived experiences of others. Below, I offer three questions to help you sign your own emancipation proclamation.
Reflection: What does Dr. King’s life and legacy mean to me?
Restoration: What is my role in rebuilding America?
Restitution: How can I impact the lives of generations to come?
Dr. T. Leon Williams is lending his expert knowledge to a whole new generation of college students. Learn more about his keynotes at campuspeak.com/williams.