Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Penguins

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Today most Americans are observing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It is also Penguin Awareness Day and at first glance there seems to be no connection. There is a through line between the justice Martin Luther King, Jr. sacrificed his life to achieve and the existential threat facing penguins. Allow me to make my case.

I have a new travel guide for creating your own civil rights crawl in Alabama. It explains how Martin Luther King Jr. was a preacher’s son from Atlanta. He married Coretta Scott, who was from Marion, Alabama and he was the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery when he became politically active. You can visit the church parsonage and learn more about his early adult life. You can see the bomb damage on the porch from an explosive (no one was injured, thankfully).

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_2a7cYou can also travel to the the Safe House Museum in Greensboro, Alabama and learn about an incident when the black community members kept Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hidden while the Klu Klux Klan terrorized their neighborhood looking for King. This was just a few months before he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee. At this time in his career King was preaching about the need to address poverty and structural economic inequity. Just as old testament prophets were not popular, King and his message were unpopular. He was asking people to look beyond the gross injustice of sheriff’s with dogs and fire hoses to see the injustice we are all complicit with everyday in our economic interactions, which are shaped by our laws and regulations–all within our power to change.

The “march continues” as long as we continue to ignore the ways in which we externalize the real cost of our choices. There is a terrific interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross interviewing Bryan Stevenson about the Legacy Museum. You can listen to it as a podcast or on the website (1/20/2020). The Legacy Museum, featured in the travel guide, helps visitors to interact with the horrific human rights violations that happened during slavery, afterward as Jim Crow laws were solidified, and then with mass  Alabama is celebrating Martin Luther King/Robert E. Lee Day today, so there is still a dialogue needed.

“Until we reckon with history we are not going to get free. I actually think we need an era of truth and justice in this country; we need to have truth and reconciliation; we need to have truth and restoration. And it’s not because I want to punish America that I want to talk about these things. I actually want us to be liberated. I want to get to a better place. I think there’s something better that’s waiting for us that we can’t get to until we have the courage to talk honestly about our past.” Bryan Stevenson, Fresh Air, 1/20/20 (around 28:00)

The climate crisis is similar in that we externalize the real cost of our choices. Someone else, usually someone poorer than me, pays the price for my lifestyle. I drove to pick up my mail today and the fossil fuel in my gas tank contributed to the global warming that is increasing the intensity of fires in Australia, warming the ocean and making it more difficult for penguins to find food. I have a bumper sticker that says I love Penguins, and I have done so little to curb my own greenhouse gas emissions.

And yet penguins continue to make us smile and to live their quietly heroic lives.

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Whatever you may have heard of the The Green New Deal, it is rightly linking the need for  a whole sale change in how we power our economy and social justice. I hope we have the vision in 2020 to elect new leaders and write new policies that give us and penguins a shot at a livable future.

Just Mercy Delivers a Gut Punch

 

As the film opened in 1987 on a rural highway in Alabama, I began to sweat as I realized that I wasn’t prepared for the suspense involved in watching Just Mercy. The film tells the start of real-life Bryan Stevenson’s career as he discovers his calling to work on systemic injustice in Alabama. This movie focuses on his first cases and Jamie Foxx stars as Walter McMillan, one of his early clients who was falsely accused of murder and awaiting a death sentence.

CivilRightsCrawl_COVER-ThumbHow do you make a legal case dramatic? Pick relevant topics: unequal judicial systems largely because of race and poverty, the importance of truth and the rule of law. Then tell the story in a way that we can root for the characters played by an excellent cast. Michael B. Jordan produced the film and plays the founding attorney of Equal Justice Initiative with such stoicism and self-control.

For Stevenson is a man to be admired and his work, not just in working with people wrongly accused, but also in working for systemic change in the judicial system for children tried as adults and given life sentences or death penalties, makes him heroic. Add to this writing a powerful book, Just Mercy, and then creating the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum in Montgomery. This was the draw for my Civil Rights Crawl and inspired me to write my travel guide. Thank you Mr. Stevenson.

There are many tough moments to watch in the film. I squirmed at various points, and dove under my sweater as it became clear that we may see an electrocution on death row. I don’t know what was finally shown because I had my eyes shut tight. It was intended to be horrifying and succeeded.

There were many stories in the book that could have been the focus of the film. It is interesting that the screenwriter chose to focus on Mr. McMillan’s story as it is set in Monroeville, Alabama, the home of Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). At one point a cheerful denizen of Monroeville asks Stevenson if he’s been to the Mockingbird Museum in the old courthouse. “You can see where Atticus Finch stood.” At this point the irony is hip deep.

The Equal Justice Initiative’s work is ongoing. Stay till the end so you can see the “where are they now” facts as the credits role. The corrupt sheriff featured in the McMillan case was re-elected six more times before retiring in 2019.

This is one of a series of occasional reviews of resources you may want to check out before visiting Alabama for your Civil Rights Crawl. Not everyone finds reading pleasurable, so it is good to be able to watch this 2 hour and 16 minute film. It is rated PG-13 and would be suitable to watch with groups of people 13 and over with discussion afterward.