Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr.

If a man is thirty-seven years old, as I am, and compromises what he believes in or knows to be true just because he wants to live a little longer or a little more comfortably, then he may live until he’s eighty-seven, but his physical death is merely a belated announcement of a much earlier death of the spirit. – Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca 1966?).

The above may not be an exact quote. Hence I’m reluctant to put quotation marks around it. But it’s not just a rephrasing either. It should be pretty close. NOAA, where I worked, used to have a newsletter (probably still does, or at least an electronic equivalent). And one year, early on after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was added to the list of federal holidays, that newsletter ran these words, or something like them.[1] On other occasions, Dr. King uttered words to similar effect. Consider, for example, his pithier version: “A man who won’t die for something is not fit to live.”

Both the insight and the phrasing compel us. We find ourselves energized and more than a little challenged. I’ve thought about them frequently over the years, and shared them with many audiences. This year, the blog provides opportunity for a post. Here is a chance to honor him in a small way.

Curiously, in writing, I find myself also thinking about my younger brother. I admire him as well, and in part for this very reason; he never compromised what he believed in. I saw this up close and personal at home. When we were teenagers, we had the usual tensions with our parents. In these confrontations, my brother would always be forthright and direct. He’d tell my parents exactly what he didn’t like about the family rules, and why, and what he thought those rules should be instead. My parents weren’t always thrilled, but they knew where he stood. [He came by this trait honestly; my parents had the same integrity. So these exchanges could be something to behold.]

My brother carried this integrity into his adult life. Years later, when he was an executive at Bell laboratories, he had a similar confrontation with a higher-up. The boss was a climber, and an egomaniac. He wanted to push through a project that would make his name. By contrast, my brother saw the goals and schedule as wholly unrealistic. Moreover, he saw that the attempt would have a brutal effect on the lives of all the employees in the (fairly large) group. Each would have to sacrifice his or her family responsibilities, or any semblance of a life-work balance, to this project for months on end. So when his boss demanded that the group take this on, my brother refused. He wasn’t fired, but because he stood up on that occasion, his next and last several years of work at Bell labs were made most difficult and unpleasant.[2]

Why juxtapose these two lives – Martin Luther King, Jr., and my brother? Surely the stakes were far different.

Absolutely. Dr. King was speaking for an entire race, trying to overcome centuries of repression and unspeakable evils, literally making himself odious not just to a single supervisor but the focus for hatred from large numbers of bigots in every corner of the country (and, for that matter from some who had aims similar to his but who scorned non-violence, saying it would never work). My brother was called on for this same courage but only in the kind of individual circumstance that could (and does) happen to any and all of us.

But reflect for a moment on two ideas. First, we all have far too much of a tendency to see ourselves as bit players in someone else’s biography, rather than the heroes of our own. My guess is that if Dr. King were alive today, he’d take some satisfaction in what he’d accomplished through his life and death, but that he’d also notice how much more work needs doing. He’d be putting down markers, challenging more of us to model his or even better behavior in our own lives, and to face down our own challenges, rather than simply raise his name high through a few well-meaning but nonetheless idle words.[3] So along these lines, here’s a suggestion. Think back over your own life. Remember a time when you refused to compromise your beliefs, when you stood up for what you knew to be true. And draw courage from that today.

Second, our field is entering this same contentious arena. Scientists, politicians, government workers, educators, journalists engaged in resource-, environmental-, and hazards issues have always been called upon for individual acts of courage in their professional and private lives. We’re only human! But today many scientists and many politicians in our line of work – people you and I know! – are finding the workplace more of a battleground. The most visible in our community are getting hate mail (again from both sides) and worse. In some parts of the world, environmentalists have given their lives when they’ve stood in the way of economic development and environmental degradation. And here’s a forecast: the stakes will likely continue to rise. In the future we’ll need to incorporate courage, and civility, and conscience as part and parcel of our scientific and professional disciplines.

Martin Luther King had more to say about all this:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” And Vanity comes along and asks the question, “Is it popular?” But Conscience asks the question “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

So, whether you’re 27, or 37, or 67 (my age), remember Dr. King’s admonition.

And keep your spirits up!

[1]Often since, I’ve attempted to find this quote in texts, and on the web. Perhaps one of our readers can give me the exact wording and/or the source. I’d be grateful!

[2] The boss subsequently moved on to a more senior position at a different company, where his management philosophy would ultimately lead to indictment and a prison sentence.

[3]I got a chance to experience that firsthand in 1966. I was then a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Dr. King and the Chicago Freedom Movement were taking on the city on housing, jobs, health, the prison system and much more. One arena was education. Superintendent of Schools Benjamin Willis was a particular symbol. His name was associated with his policy of solving the overcrowding in black schools by cramming the students in mobile classrooms. Dr. King came to Chicago to lead a march. The day prior, he was speaking on the Midway, near the University of Chicago. An opportunity to see the man! I decided to go. The Midway crowd was pretty large, but even so, it was possible to get fairly close. Can’t remember all of what he said that day, but do remember this line: “A lot of you came today just because you were curious. But will you be with us tomorrow?” He had nailed me. A day later, I found myself on the downtown streets with 25,000 other people.

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