How Dr. Martin Luther Jr. Changed My Life
I was 17 when I met him and he's been a part of my life ever since.
It’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and most of the world will be celebrating by recounting his formidable achievements in changing the world for the better. I will be celebrating right along with them. But, while there will be many testimonials about his uplifting speeches and dangerous marches and his unflinching courage in the face of enemies that ranged from white supremacists to J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, my relationship with Dr. King is a little more personal.
To pay my respects, I’ve decided to offer two short excerpts from my memoir Becoming Kareem that shows how he influenced a confused high school boy frustrated with how he was taught in school about an America that was a land of opportunity, freedom, and cultural diversity, yet experienced the opposite on a daily basis. It was Dr. King who helped me understand the world better and inspired me to follow his lead in making the world a fairer, more just place.
Here’s how that happened:
My High School Coach Tries to Explain Racism
The first section chronicles a drive home with my high school coach Jack Donahue. Racial tension was everywhere in the news, but it was also everywhere in my life—from the taunts on the streets to the lack of Black people’s achievements mentioned in my classes. It seemed to me at the time that White people wanted us to be invisible in their lives, and be cheerful about being allowed to exist near them. Coach Donahue knew I was bothered and tried his best to address it.
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As our winning season continued, Coach began spending more time with me. He drove me to school a couple of times a week, and we chatted casually about sports and school. He was cheerful and clearly had my best interests at heart, but there was still something missing. We were friendly without being friends. Still, when we did speak about race issues, he was sympathetic to our plight.
“I saw some bad stuff in the army,” he told me. “I was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Not exactly a state known for racial enlightenment.”
I didn’t know how to talk about race with an adult, especially a white adult. Especially my coach. I just nodded.
“It’s all gonna change someday, Lew,” he said as we drove.
“When?” I asked. That was the only thing I cared about.
He sighed. “It’ll take generations. Racism won’t die out until all the hard-core racists die out. Then each new generation will be a little less racist, until all that hatred is diluted out of existence.”
“Generations? That’s going to take a long time.”
He looked over at me sympathetically. He could see I was not happy with that answer. “All good people can do is wait for justice.”
Wait, huh? That way of thinking frustrated me. It was the same speech I’d been hearing my whole life, from teachers to politicians. Why did we have to be the ones to wait? Racism would die out, I thought, when all reasonable people refused to let it exist. Surely there were enough reasonable white and black people to stomp out racism right now!
That spring, in the middle of our basketball season, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was thrown in jail after protesting segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. During his incarceration, he wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he encouraged people to disobey immoral laws like segregation. A month later, the television and newspapers were filled with images of a civil rights protest in Birmingham where the authorities attacked protesters with fire hoses and police dogs. Giving the orders was the commissioner of public safety, Eugene “Bull” Connor, who warned that the city “ain’t gonna segregate no niggers and whites together.” How could we be asked to wait when this was going on? Dr. King expressed my frustration in his letter:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
In history class, we had studied something similar from the eighteenth-century Irish politician Edmund Burke, who is credited with saying, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” And that’s what “Wait” meant: good people doing nothing. Dr. King had said something about that, too, in his letter: “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
Unfortunately, waiting is mostly what teenagers do, no matter what race. Adults make it seem like an evil wizard’s curse: “Wait until you have children!” “Wait until you’re in the real world!” “Wait until you’re our age!” What choice did we have but wait while adults ran the world and preached to us how we would one day inherit their mess because we were “the hope of the future.” Waiting was our weight.
I was tired of waiting for others to do the right thing. But I was only sixteen. What else could I do?