Friday 5: Reading in the spirit of MLK Day

This week’s Friday 5 is in celebration of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and comes from writer Christopher Oklyn.  Christopher was born in Paris, France and grew up in Cardiff, Wales.  He attended Northwestern University in Chicago, where he majored in communications and economics.  He is a recent migrant to Brooklyn and currently works for a Community Development Financial Institution in Manhattan.  Christopher is a playwright, a poet, and a blogger with interests in improv, social activism, and travel.

Two men will be celebrated this weekend. Two men of distinction, of great hope, and of far-reaching ambition. It is important to cherish this moment and to acknowledge how far from the tyranny of segregation we have come. But it is equally important to take pause and remember that we would not be congratulating one man without the sacrifice of the other. This Sunday Barack Obama will be sworn in for his second term. This is an achievement that we can comfortably assume was barely a dream forty-five years ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. died for the Civil Rights Movement. 

Yet, it is hard to begin to comprehend what this achievement means: I will never be able to fully understand the prejudice suffered by people of color now or fifty years ago – I am a white male.  However, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, the non-fiction classic published in 1961, does an excellent job of providing an inroad for understanding. Mr. Griffin’s experiment in changing the pigmentation of his skin and his description of traveling through the Deep South show us, through the lens of a man experiencing intense discrimination for the first time, how awful conditions truly were.

Without the courage, the vision and the sacrifice of Dr. King, we might not have been fortunate enough to witness an African American be voted into the highest office of the country. It is incredible, but perfectly timed, that Obama’s second-term inauguration should fall on MLK weekend.  It is because of this timing that I would recommend Obama’s memoir Dreams From My Father for this MLK holiday. Obama describes his early life and, in the accessible yet poetic language that he is well known for, provides his insights on race relations whilst growing up.

Reading Obama’s book provides rich context for the success he has now reached. However, we must not be blinded by the success of one man and his family when so many minority groups are treated as second-class citizens. We cannot forget that Dr. King preached for all people to be treated equally, regardless of race, class, or creed.  Though there are no longer laws that enforce segregation, discrimination is still rampant all around us. Reading A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn provides a very detailed account of the history of this country from the perspective of the least heard and most oppressed. Dr. King should be celebrated not only for his significant role in the civil rights movement, which was primarily focused on the inequality suffered by African Americans, but also for how devoted he was to equality of all people.

We cannot cease working towards the dream Dr. King had. Reading his first-hand account of the Civil Rights Movement in his book Why We Can’t Wait shocks us out of potential apathy and reinvigorates our perpetual quest for freedom and equality for all. Included in the book is his ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail’, which he wrote whilst imprisoned for his role in the 1963 Birmingham non-violent protest. In the letter he states: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Reading his book and his letter helps us realize that though the civil rights movement is over, the need for equality remains.

Finally, I’d like to suggest Lorraine Hansberry’s beautiful play A Raisin in the Sun. The play speaks to the crisis of identity of African Americans trying to move up in a white-dominated world, while trying to hold onto their African heritage and black culture. The difficulty of African Americans moving into white neighborhoods, which is a primary conflict in the play, is sadly a significant problem that persists today and can be seen from the no-hoodies-allowed gated communities in Florida to the racially biased stop-and-frisk police tactics in New York.

There is much to be joyful about this weekend, and much to be disappointed in. However, in celebrating Dr. King’s accomplishments and reading some of these books, hopefully we can learn from the successes of the past and apply them to the struggles of the present.