A Song Fit For A King

My Motown lesson in Martin Luther King, Jr.

[EDITOR’S NOTE — While MLK Day is celebrated next Monday, January 15 is Dr. King’s birthday. He would have been 80 today. This article was originally published in Busted Halo on January 15, 2007.]

mlk_innerThe record spins. The needle hits the vinyl. A rhythmic tune bursts out from the speakers and penetrates my soul. At the same time, the emotional lyrics capture my young imagination. As I stare at the record sleeve, I’m transported to a time I have never known, a place far from home, and a struggle of monstrous proportions. While most kids today learn about the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in their elementary school classes, I first heard about this great champion of civil rights from a Motown record. And from this introductory lesson, I began to see how his legacy lives on in my life and how his example challenges me to reflect Christ to others.

I grew up in a biracial family in the largely white area of Orange County, CA. My parents made a special effort to create a loving home and supportive environment for my younger brother and I, always emphasizing that our African American and Caucasian background gave us “the best of both worlds.”

I Want My…

But at the age of five, race was the last thing on my mind. I was enthralled with music. I watched MTV nightly back when their programming consisted primarily of music videos. I listened to the radio constantly. I even started sounding out tunes on the piano that I had heard from movies. But nothing beat lying down by the record player and listening to all of my parents’ old records. My mom’s collection gave me the best of classic rock while my dad had stockpiled what seemed to me to be every Motown record ever made.

It was in my dad’s collection that I stumbled on Stevie Wonder’s song “Happy Birthday” from his Hotter Than July album. The song—released in 1980—was a passionate call for the national recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthday, years before the U.S. government instituted a national holiday in his honor. The inner sleeve of the album featured a black and white photo of the civil rights leader and, though I didn’t know who he was, his peaceful demeanor in the portrait felt very calming. I wanted to know more about him. Under his name were two dates—January 15, 1929-April 4, 1968—but at that young age, did not fully grasp the significance.

On the other side of the record sleeve, there was a collage of black-and-white images depicting major events in the civil rights movement. I saw King leading large groups of people in what looked to my five-year-old eyes like a major parade of some sort. Some of the images were deeply disturbing, such as the pictures showing African Americans being sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs as well as images of fire and smoke and people crying. There was a sense of general chaos in those photos that stood in stark contrast to Dr. King’s peaceful disposition in his portrait on the other side.

Before The Flood

“I felt simultaneously both the victim and the perpetrator as I identified with both races on the sleeve. ‘How could people that looked like my mom do such horrible things to people that looked like my dad,’ I would ask myself.”

While I stared at the record sleeve and listened to Wonder’s song, questions flooded my mind. Why were these people being attacked? Why did it seem as if all the victims were black and all the agressors white? How did this peaceful man come to lead such a large crowd of people from both races? What did he do? I couldn’t help but feel an innate sense of wonder and awe for King.

I took my questions to my parents who explained to me the civil rights movement and the importance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. From that point forward, I listened to that song with new ears and looked at that record sleeve with new eyes. I began to understand the purpose of the song. A deep sense of sadness and longing started creeping up into my gut as I looked at King’s photo. The chaotic images on the other side became troubling on an entirely new level.

Victim and Perpetrator

I felt simultaneously both the victim and the perpetrator as I identified with both races on the sleeve. “How could people that looked like my mom do such horrible things to people that looked like my dad,” I would ask myself. At that moment, it became strikingly apparent why Dr. King was so important to me. He preached of unity, peace and love among all races and nowhere was that more evident than in my own home, where my black father and white mother loved each other so completely. In essence, King was the bridge that my parents used to cross into each other’s lives, culminating in marriage and then my birth. I owed a piece of my very existence to the civil rights leader. He changed the entire political, socio-economic landscape with the revolutionary power of love…God’s love.

King lived out what I believe God calls us all to do…love one another by accepting everyone as a brother or sister in Christ. Through this love and acceptance, he brought a sense of reconciliation between blacks and whites, between rich and poor, between the oppressor and the oppressed. His commitment to nonviolence as a vehicle for this radical love has always inspired me to aspire to a higher moral calling. He was a living breathing example of what it means to answer this higher calling even to the point of his own imprisonment and eventual assassination. He let his conscience guide him in his nonviolent resistance to all forms of oppression and injustice, from segregation and civil rights to poverty and the Vietnam War. His actions presented a personal challenge to me. Will I be brave enough to follow my conscience wherever I see injustice?

Living Out of Love

Today, 18 years later, I struggle to live out King’s message in my daily life. After finishing a year of service work in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I decided to stay involved in the youth ministry at my parish, working to educate teens on the power of love and forgiveness. I remain committed to loving all people, espcially those marginalized most in our society…from those living on the street to the many undocumented immigrants that have ventured across our border. And with every death in Iraq, Sudan and all war-torn areas throughout the world, I become an even bigger, more outspoken proponent of peace, through nonviolent (non-militaristic) means.

I’m constantly reminded of King’s higher moral calling for my life every time I hear Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday. I also can’t help from feeling a deep sense of gratitude to King for his ability and commitment in enabling love and peace to transcend racial, cultural and economic divides. These were the barriers that my parents overcame to bring my brother and I into the world and, unfortunately, those barriers still exist. But, like Stevie Wonder, I’m also confident that one day, the world that King envisioned will become a reality.

And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King