I have never been a morning person. Ever. And this character trait often reared its ugly head while I was a student at Spelman College in Atlanta where we were required to attend weekly convocations. Most mornings they were held on our campus at Sisters Chapel but occasionally we joined our Morehouse brothers for a service held at their campus’ Martin Luther King, Jr. International Chapel. Begrudgingly, I would take the “long” walk from our dormitory, passing the statue of Dr. King before entering the chapel’s doors. I’d sit in self-absorbed silence, never fully experiencing the sanctity of this space because I was too concerned about my recent “interruption of sleep”. Ignorance is bliss, they say, and my ignorance was reflective in my lack of understanding as I believed a few extra hours of sleep would bring more joy to my life than an awakened consciousness.
More exposed to his teachings than ever before, I continued to learn about Dr. King, building upon the knowledge I had acquired as a student in both the Bahamas (where in 1968 he wrote his Sanitation Workers speech) and the Netherlands. He was a well-respected leader in both countries, whose principles of non-violent resistance were taught to young children like me, many of whom did not have brown skin like me. I learned so much about the life of Dr. King but had never felt the true essence of his soul until I moved to Memphis.
I stood with my family looking into room 306 at the Lorraine Motel, now the National Civil Rights Museum, sobbing uncontrollably as silently as I could, feeling anxious and overwhelmed as I inhabited the place where such immense evil and monumental good collided. There were simultaneous feelings of love and hatred, compassion and oppression, as I struggled to find composure amidst whirlwind feelings of rage and a knowing that no recompense of any magnitude would ever make up for this loss to mankind. “Why?” continued to linger long after we left.
Strolling through the place where he was born moved me. Sitting on the campus where he studied and listened every Tuesday to the teachings of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence inspired me. Standing in the place where he died changed me. Because of Memphis, I know I’ve been changed.
“Where do we go from here?” is the question we ask ourselves as we observe fifty years since Dr. King was killed and so I ask myself “Where do I go from here?” What do I do with the irreversible change that transpired within me that day as I felt the power in both community and chaos? The blissful ignorance of my former self longed for continued slumber in the private darkness of my Spelman dorm room. But here in Memphis, where Dr. King’s final call to a Promised Land still echoes, I am reverently awake.
“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
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