Paul R. Lehman, Letter writer fails to understand MLK’s words and actions for America

February 3, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Posted in Affirmative Action, African American, American Bigotry, American Dream, blacks, Congress, desegregation, Equal Opportunity, equality, European American, fairness, minority, President Obama, state Government, The Oklahoman, whites | 2 Comments
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A letter writer by Georgia Sparks, published in The Oklahoman on the “opinion” page, “Follow King’s Example,”(1/26/13) was surely meant to be well-meaning and kind in addressing King’s words and actions. What becomes apparent in the letter, however, is the lack of understanding the writer had of King’s objective. Most people upon hearing King’s name immediately think of his “I had a dream” speech and all the things he wanted for his children in America. When they think those thoughts, they miss the essence of King’s words and actions. If people would take the time to read the entire speech, they would recognize it for what it is—a protest speech. King was angry at America for not living up to its promise of a fair opportunity to all its citizens, especially to African Americans and other Americans.
The Sparks’ letter stated that “Most people in America are glad that Martin Luther King Jr. was able to help push back the bars keeping minorities from achieving success. He would be glad to see the progress that’s been made toward equality of opportunity.” On the contrary, most people aware of King’s challenge for the nation would be very upset and angry of the little progress that has taken place over the last fifty years. Since Sparks mentioned specifically “minorities,” we might take a look at the progress made by African Americans since King’s death. What we discover is that in many cases they have experienced a lack of progress—more African American young men are in prison than in college, the unemployment rate for African Americans is twice that of European Americans, the death rate is higher, the home ownership is lower. So, what would King be glade about? Of course, not only African Americans have experienced set-backs but also many Americans in general for a variety of reasons.
The bars referred to by Sparks that King tried to bring down or push back are still in place, for the most part. They are represented in the bigotry and prejudice still very much a part of the American fabric and manifest themselves in a variety of ways. Many of those ways were apparent during the last presidential election when some state governmental officials tried to prevent many minority citizens from voting. They are present in the laws that many Congressmen want to pass that would place a hardship of many needy Americans. King would be very up-set at the negative attitude of many Americans for wanting to deprive some citizens of much needed help.
The letter continued , “He [King] would not be happy to see how many people who could have succeeded but instead failed because they abused drugs, failed to secure a good education, chose to go into gangs and drug cartels or chose to go into crime and didn’t marry before having children.” These comments reflect a conception that has not kept pace with reality, but rather remains in a somewhat naive, but warm and secure cocoon. One of King’s primary complaints relative to government’s lack of concern focused specifically on the needs of poor people. Sparks seem to suggest that people want to be poor, ignorant, drug abusers, unemployed and work towards those ends. We know that despite the best laid plans made by people, circumstances occur that disrupt and destroy those plans, and people find themselves in predicaments not of their choosing. Once people find themselves in dire straights, extricating themselves usually prove extremely difficult; some people find it impossible to regain their once enjoyed level of life.
King believed that it was incumbent on society to lend a helping hand as well as a hand up to the people who were in need. We have a perfect example of how King imagined the government could benefit people in need by looking at many of the victims of Hurricane Sandy. The people from that experience who were displaced were not displaced because they wanted to be. Most of them are ordinary, decent, hard-working people who had no say in what Mother Nature did to them. Part of our responsibility as citizens of this great country is to help our fellow citizens when they are in need. Sometime the needs are not as obvious as helping victims of natural occurrences or as immediate. Sometimes the needs include job training and education as well as health care and housing. These are the things King saw as necessary concerns and responsibilities of our society.
Sparks’ letter stated that “People who choose to succeed make good decisions. They work hard to prepare themselves for success. They delay having children until they can marry and take care of them inside a family.” Really? Someone not choosing to be successful might be a possibility, but most people must define success according to the reality of their situation. If all it took to be successful was to choose it and work hard to accept it, certainly more people would be successful. What seems to be missing from Sparks’ comments is an understanding of the various levels of the social-economical conditions in America. She has an idea of what the American dream is and it belongs to everyone—the same dream. One way people can be successful according to Sparks would for them to “…work before they play.”
Although ethnicity is never mentioned in the letter, one cannot avoid the obvious references that suggest and stereotype groups of ethnic Americans. The mere reference to Martin Luther King Jr. usually brings to mind African Americans even though King spoke for all Americans. Sparks again seemed to misplace her focus when she closed her letter with the words about King: “He valued the family structure and took care of his own family. Instead of marching to honor King, I’d like to see people follow his example in their own lives.” What a wonderful thought. King certainly would want people to have families if they desired, but more importantly, he would have wanted society to treat all people fairly so they could choose what they defined as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To follow King’s example in light of conditions today would mean people marching in protest everyday.



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  1. It sounds as though the writer was well intentioned but confused about Dr. King’s ministry. You’ve done a great job as usual of separating fact from fantasy. Simply put Dr. King dedicated his life to the premise that either there is freedom for all or no one is truly free.

  2. That’s the problem with death. After a person dies, s/he is not around to clarify what s/he meant by what s/he said. So King’s words get interpreted all sorts of ways. One person even said if King were alive today, he’d protect gun owners’ rights.

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