Many remember Martin Luther King for the words that warm our hearts.
Many white Americans focused on one line of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech — that he longed for the day when his children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” — and molded him into a gentle champion of colorblindness.
There was far more than that, even if you don’t realize it, and contrary to the glowing homages you will see today, he was the subject of vast criticism at the time.
The establishment responded bitterly to King’s speech. The New York Times editorial board blasted King for linking the war in Vietnam to the struggles of civil rights and poverty alleviation in the United States, saying it was “too facile a connection” and that he was doing a “disservice” to both causes. It concluded that there “are no simple answers to the war in Vietnam or to racial injustice in this country.” The Washington Post editorial board said King had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country and his people.” In all,168 newspapers denounced him the next day.
As John Lewis remembered Bloody Sunday in Selma, the beating that cracked open his skull hurt worse than mean words.
The heroism wasn’t about getting beaten, but knowing that this could happen and being there anyway. Martin Luther King was assassinated by the coward’s bullet of James Earl Ray. There was nothing King could do to prevent that. But he walked onto the Edmund Pettus Bridge of his own choice, knowing that he might not walk off.
At the University of Pennsylvania, a young man, a college sophomore, assumed the risk of speaking out.
Last semester was honestly the worst semester I’ve had at Penn so far. And all because of one thing: the white professors I’ve had at Penn. It appears that the term “privilege” does not apply to them. Nor do they care to learn what it is.
Imagine being a black student on Penn’s campus with even one of these types of professors. I had three. And each one of those professors either did not care to learn about their white privilege, or lied to me and said that they did.
What suffering did he endure?
One of my professors, for example, constantly perpetuated these systems of oppression in class. He is a white man from the suburbs. And as the only black student in the class, I was already fearing the possibility of getting mad over something stupid that he was going to say. But I gave him a chance.
Unfortunately, he proved my suspicions to be true. There were countless times that his lack of acknowledgment of his privilege led to some of the trauma that I experienced in class. He would show images of slaves on plantations and even allow students to say ignorant comments in class.
There is no information as to what this insensitive professor taught, giving rise to images of slaves on plantations. There is no information as to what ignorant comments were made. But whatever it was, it was more than the student could bear.
I remember having an intense conversation after class. I basically told him that what he was doing was traumatic to me, and as someone who has experienced a lot of racial trauma in his life, I would not allow him to continue. He then used the argument that, in order to make the class a “safe space,” he had to protect the voices of all students in the class.
Obtaining no relief from the trauma, the student did the only thing he could.
I stopped going to his class for a month. With different emotions going through my head from not only this class but from the Trump election, I did not want to step foot into another white space until I made sure that my mental health was restored.
As a college sophomore, even at an Ivy League school, he can be forgiven the poverty of his ability to express clear and comprehensive thoughts. Then again, as a college sophomore, at an Ivy League school, the likelihood of anything more traumatic than a paper cut is slim to none. Yet, he stopped going to class for a month because of his emotions, the impact on his mental health. And he now writes to chastise his white professors for their sins.
It is not enough that you are sorry for the injustices caused by your people. It is not enough that you read one article on the Black Lives Matter movement because your black friend recommended it to you. It is not enough that you gave your black students extensions on their papers because Trump got elected.
The truth is, you as a single person cannot make up for the horrific things that white people have done to us throughout human history. But that does not mean that you do not have the power to stop yourself from oppressing the students that you teach every day.
You have to be invested in stopping racism and oppression every day, not just on your free time.
Had he been given the opportunity to stand beside Martin Luther King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, would he have had the guts to do so? If he couldn’t bear being in class at the University of Pennsylvania because it was too traumatic, would he willingly brave his head being cracked open by a club? If his “truth” is that it’s other people’s responsibility to do everything that makes him feel comfortable, would he have taken the responsibility to do it for himself?
For those who wonder what makes John Lewis a hero, he made the choice to walk across that bridge. It doesn’t make him perfect, but when he was put to the test of risking his life for an unpopular cause, he didn’t flinch.