January 16, 2014
Noah Schuettge is a recent transplant to Birmingham, Alabama and is serving as an AmeriCorps member in the Social Justice department at the YWCA Central Alabama.
"Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels inevitability. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Without persistent effort, time itself becomes an ally of the insurgent and primitive forces of irrational emotionalism and social destruction. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action."
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since the death of Nelson Mandela and the subsequent news coverage of his life and legacy, I am noticing a tendency, or maybe a compulsion, on the part of mainstream media outlets to “sanitize or idolize.” Since I first read this phrase in an article by a Muslim activist remembering the life of Nelson Mandela, I cannot stop ruminating on the concepts of “sanitation” and “idolization” in America’s mainstream media.
I recently joined a gym, and while jogging I often watch mainstream media channels to pass the time. I do not own a television and rarely visit these sites online and was dismayed by the sensationalism and banality of the news coverage. The “controversy” these stations boast often seems violent and tedious rather than provoking, and ironically, the truly “controversial” topics are often replaced with “safe” narratives for fear of offending viewership. I feel this practice is especially problematic in the remembrance of activists like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the lack of discussion surrounding the legacy of apartheid and the current state of racism.
While the remembrances of these men are sad for many, they can also be a fruitful opportunity to discuss the topics that are sometimes uncomfortable and far too easy to avoid—the same topics Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. incessantly brought to light during their lifetimes, often to the chagrin of those around them.
The more I learn about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, two separate narratives surrounding MLK and his legacy emerge. One is the recognizable and familiar: his profound ability to stir hearts and minds around him and his historical place as a great mover of our society and culture. The other narrative is the story of revolution and it is messy, political and human. Politics, factions, personal biases and hatreds all played a role in the long and difficult struggle to reform racist policies in this country. For me, both of these narratives are equally true and equally important, and to leave out one is a detriment to current efforts of activism. The second humanizing narrative of King and the Movement is inspiring; while major cultural changes remain difficult to accomplish, they at least become attainable.
There are many events and volunteer opportunities available in Birmingham this weekend to not only remember, but also to act. But despite how I spend my holiday this year, I will try to look beyond one day of the year to remember through action.
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
- Howard Zinn