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Every year around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I like to carve out a good chunk of time to listen to and meditate on a handful of his speeches. I’ve written about King here a few times already, but every year, I discover something new. Sometimes, that newness comes from a speech I’ve already seen before more than once. This year, I discovered a new meaning behind his blueprint speech, and found myself connecting the dots to two other of his speeches.
For this week’s roundup, with the continued uncertainty of events hanging over our heads due to the rising Covid-19 cases, I thought this week would be another chance for us to intentionally do nothing. This time, let’s “do nothing” as MLK lends us wisdom that feels incredibly relevant nearly 60 years later.
A speech on “Creative Maladjustment”
Taken from a speech given at UCLA in 1965, King uses Aristotelian syllogism to explore the primary and secondary concepts of existing, particularly in America as a Black person. It’s an evolution of sorts, starting from the moment in 1619 when the first Africans were brought to the colonies and were enslaved to now, a country in the mid-20th century wrestling with its own “poisoned” legacy and history through civil rights movements.
Thrown into freedom without resources, bootstraps, and the boots, Black people in the 1900s were enduring an economy and culture that were rapidly changing and industrializing, largely without them. King says that the “Negro had to take a good look at himself” and come to the conclusion that they were somebody.
This message is significant today as Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks continue to struggle to exist and be within systems that are designed to work against them. But it’s the way that King delivers this message that is not just eloquent in its prose but is compelling in how he’s able to weave a narrative and reels it all together in the end. He shifts his speech with a moment of levity and self-awareness around the fifteenth minute: after acknowledging the progress Americans have made in the advancement of Black people, noting they’ve come a long, long way, he jokingly notes that if this were as far as America needed to go, then his speech would be very short, especially for him. That’s when King unleashes the truth, in a searingly precise, matter-of-factly way that’s both sharp and temperate. He’s aware of it, too, warning his audience of the “dangerous optimism” he didn’t come to give them.
“The fact is merely the absence of contradiction, but truth is the presence of coherence. Truth is the relatedness of facts,” he says. “It is a fact that we’ve come a long, long way but … we have a long, long way to go before the problem of racial injustice is solved.”
There are two ominous points he makes that are swelling in their urgency to be addressed. At the twenty-third minute, King warns that if we don’t provide services and programs for people who are in need, then they are bound to live a life that is a “long and desolate corridor with no exit sign.” A society with a large segment of its population carrying such a sentiment only leads to chaos. That chaos is becoming more and more apparent, especially during a pandemic.
King also cautions about the “appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.” He’s not worried about the bad people and their actions, but the good people and their inaction. “I’m absolutely convinced that the forces of ill will of our nation … have often used time much more effectively than the people and the forces of good.”
Goodness, that feels frustratingly familiar. But what does that say about me? About you?
What is your life’s blueprint?
Well, that’s where the blueprint comes in. I listen to this speech every year around this time. The speech, filmed right here in Philadelphia (King mentions an afterparty of sorts happening at the Spectrum after his appearance, which is oddly charming to me), poses the question: “what is your life’s blueprint?”
There are three elements he presents. First, he urges “a deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth, and your own somebodiness.” King reminds us, the listeners, that we are somebody and that our lives have ultimate significance. This belief lends itself to the second element, which is a determination to achieve excellence in your endeavors—sweep streets like Michaelangelo paints illustrations. It’s about pride in what you do, and in today’s age, this message is important: we’ve gotten so caught up in defining ourselves according to our jobs and occupations that we often lose sight of our identities and our values. Our titles aren’t merely enough to define who we are and why we are. This approach to our “endeavors” leads to the third element, which is a commitment to the “eternal principles of beauty, love, and justice.” With that, King is calling for people to not “lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice.”
How we pursue those eternal principles of self-respect, belief in our own somebodiness, and a commitment to our own values is up to us. But knowing how we can participate and contribute in this world can be a lifelong journey, and King is privy to that, too. That perspective and understanding is refreshing, especially for late bloomers like me.
Avoiding missiles and misguidedness
This speech from 1967 could have been delivered yesterday. Each topic, from observing what disparages communities economically, the logic behind persistent violence, the quiet endemic of illiteracy, and the constant failure to execute public services and programs for people living in poverty, are issues we face ad nauseam in the US today. It’s frustrating watching a speech from nearly 60 years ago resonate so closely.
King is critical of lackluster bipartisan leadership, lends insight to the injustices to families living in poverty in urban and rural communities alike, and argues that there is more care given to rats and rodents than there is for Black people.
“I wish I could say this is just a passing phase in the cycle of our nation’s life … but I believe that we are now experiencing the coming to the surface of a triple-pronged sickness that has been lurking within our body politics from its very beginning: that is a sickness of racism, excessive materialism, and militarism.”
I will leave it here because it is a long, winding quote that I think lands much better when you hear it, but King cites a writer’s observations of America and its obsession over devices, mounting busyness, and swelling fatigue, anxiety, and dissatisfaction that has our moral compasses lagging behind our scientific progressions. King concludes that “our moral lag must be redeemed when scientific power outruns moral power, we end up with guided missiles and misguided men.” It’s a hearty, foreboding speech—be sure to turn off all your other devices and distractions when you listen to it.
The end of dangerous optimism
This year, I hope we continue to find ways to move forward. We’re being forced to slow down again, and it’s hard not to wonder if we were able to slow down more without having to face devastating consequences that we would have a better grip of our own blueprints. I know for me, the blueprint is to stave off dangerous optimism in pursuit of the truth and all its facts. The blueprint is also to discover what my “endeavor” is and to execute on it with the hopes of establishing that “exit sign” for myself and others.
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