James W. Thomasson: Martin Luther King Day retroflection

James W. Thomasson

May I share some reflections on a special person on a day of national celebration?

Everyone has special memories that cement historical occurrences in their personal consciousness, whether it be the assassinations of the Kennedys or Martin Luther King, or the Jihadist assaults of 911. Mine relate directly to this day’s events and the historical circumstances that preceded it and proceeded from it. As an educator I know many attach their mission of “social change” to MLK, but we must be careful not to misconstrue that this really is about transformational education and the qualities of personal courage and perseverance that leadership can require! It is not about heavy rhetoric, trumping someone else’s misplayed cards, or a degree at the end of a graduate program—it is about lifestyle change!

I was a young, naïve college freshman, walking into my first class at Wesleyan Univers-ity, hardly prepared for the real education I was about to receive. There at the front of the room was a distressed looking professor, lean, drawn cheeks, head wrapped in gauze. As it turned out, he had just returned from “Freedom Marches” down South with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in time to begin Fall classes. The bandage was a free gift from a State Trooper, bequeathed to that “Yankee sympathizer.” Less than four years later, as a married college senior with a loving wife and a 1-1/2 month old daughter, I sat awaiting my trip down the aisle to receive my B.A. The graduation speaker that day, confronting a class of mostly “privileged” and “best and brightest” graduates [though a few “po’ white trash”, including me, were there as well!] was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For many in the crowd this was a transformational moment, where fundamental humanity shattered the presence of personal pretense. He spoke about the experience that had led him to Atlanta, Memphis, Selma, and the like, and his motivation: “I have been to the top of the mountain”. With those words at our graduation he began a kind of prophetic envisioning of his own coming “event”, a theme he repeated to a crowd of striking garbage workers the night before his assassination! The impact of that day lead me to rethink another critical moment from my own youth, one whose significance was vaguely felt, but hardly understood.

At the age of eight, in socially divided Middleburg, Virginia, I was “reported” to my mother by a neighborhood “wag” for playing in the street with “John Henry”—yes, a ten-year-old black boy. As big a disgrace as that must have been for the neighbor, it paled in comparison to the embarrassment of my mother and the rage of my father. That evening after dinner—with little at all said to me or my sister about this awful violation I had committed—my father left the table momentarily, then, returned with an “Atlas” of the United States. In silence he opened to the national map, closed his eyes, and, with a determined thrust, stuck his index finger on Colorado Springs, Colorado. That was

October, 1949, and forty-some miles from the Capitol of the “land of the free!”

“This is not how Joyce and little Jimmy are going to be raised,” remarked my father, seemingly at ease, despite such a momentous decision.

By January following, my family—poorer than dirt, as it seems to me now, and separated by some fourteen hundred miles from all other members of the extended family—was living in Colorado Springs.

Likely, it will come as no surprise that “little Jimmy” studied American history and literature, debate, religious studies, art history, philosophy, ethics, psychology, and sociology of knowledge, then settled on an exploration of the existential concern that lies at the point of intersection of all of these: how do I come to know that I am a unique self, distinctively other than what others would have me be as the object of their will. In short, I was challenged to understand and portray the dialectic of authentic selfhood, and that, especially, in relation to the movement from bondage to liberation.

No, I am not going to recount my entire personal history, other than to assert what any serious mission aimed at education for social change must acknowledge: the light of knowledge must shatter the darkness of ignorance and social bias before transformative social change can be effected. That is the challenge that you and I face. So, prepare yourselves well for responsibility of freedom. That will allow you to share the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. and climb to the height of your own mountain.