By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
December 06, 2019
Ana, not her real name, is an enormously intelligent woman and a dear friend. On Monday she sent me a text: “I am one of those who disagree with you on the Sat issue. We must talk. I am organizing for work so now is not a good time but we must do so later.”
We talked later that day. She said: “Sat has said many hurtful things about black people. Black people do not have many idols to look up to but we have Martin Luther King. And then you come, as a prophet of God, to absolve Sat from all of the hurtful things he said about us.”
These sentiments came from her heart. She was trying to come to grips with the comparison I made between Sat and MLK. Although she wanted to give Sat his due, she could not accept my position. To her, it was neither accurate nor appropriate.
As she spoke, I knew that I had touched something deep within her. I was sorry I had hurt and even disappointed her. She elaborated: “I know you know the history of King and the Movement and have the learned references, but you missed the humanity of what King stood for and what he meant to us.”
I understood Ana’s point. There was something genuine about what she said. In paying tribute to Sat’s contribution to our island’s history (I titled my remarks, “Perfecting the Union”) I did not mean to suggest that Sat was our country’s MLK. I sought to illuminate what I considered one of Sat’s major attributes (see my full remarks on Trinicenter.com).
Although I likened Sat to MLK, I did not say he was our MLK, which some commentators interpreted me to say. MLK, like Barack Obama, “articulated a prophetic hope and optimism about the goodness of our [U.S.] people –irrespective of race, color, or gender” (Clarence Jones and Stuart Connelly, Behind the Dream, 2011) whereas Sat was concerned primarily with the ills that beset his people. There was a difference in approaches.
Jones, MLK’s lawyer and political adviser, wrote: “Whenever I am asked to speak to groups, whether they are students, historians, bankers, or religious leaders, the question always comes up: Who today is most like Martin Luther King Jr.? My answer is always straight out: ‘No one.’ And I continue by asking a question of them: ‘Who today is like Michelangelo, Mozart, Galileo, Shakespeare, or Beethoven?'”
He continued: “I tell with utter conviction to whoever will listen that Martin Luther King Jr. was sui generis—that is, singularly of his own kind. A once-in-a-lifetime (or more likely, a once-in-a millennium) figure. And this isn’t coming from someone who has made a worship-filled career studying him from afar; I’m speaking as a friend who shared meals and conversation with him” (Behind the Dream).
I never met MLK. I got to the United States in 1964 and by 1968 he was dead. But, in the course of my career, I associated with many people who worked with MLK. They included Reverend Ralph Abernathy, who “traveled with Dr. King on most civil rights demonstrations and considered himself a ‘co-leader of SCLC,'” and who wanted me to write his biography, and Professor Lawrence Reddick, another of King’s advisers and my senior colleague at Harvard University. Professor Reddick had some serious advice for me when I was about to utter intemperate remarks on a sensitive political issue.
Jones noted that King had asked Cleveland Robinson, Reverends Walter Fauntory, Bernard Lee, Ralph Abernathy, Reddick, Bayard Rustin, and himself to attend a meeting to review the final draft of his “I Have a Dream Speech,” the evening before he delivered it. Many of MLK’s confidants contributed but it remained MLK’s speech.
Nelson Mandela stands in a similar place in the souls of black folks. One only has to read Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom to understand the international status of this black warrior. Years ago I visited Mandela’s cell in Robben Island, South Africa, where he began that enormously engrossing text.
Knowing and loving MLK is one thing, following his example is another. The redemptive power of love was the key element in MLK’s nonviolent, civil disobedience strategy. In Stride Toward Freedom MLK wrote: “Gandhi was probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale….
“It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.” Coretta Scott King, MLK’s wife, recounts: “He told me that the turning point in his thinking about how to reconcile Christian pacifism with getting things done came while he was at seminary, when he learned about the revered Indian leader, Mahatma Gandhi” (Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr.)
I still believe that Sat and MLK were fighting for “their people,” but I can see why some people found this comparison odious. I apologize for creating that impression and the hurt it caused. However, comparing Sat with one aspect of MLK’s extraordinary gifts does not take anything away from the entirety of MLK’s achievements.
I am still guided by MLK’s belief in the redemptive power of love. Inherent in that love is a capacity to open oneself to understanding the strengths and weaknesses of others. Caring about the sensitivities of one another must be the key to our national salvation. I hope all of us can embody that sentiment in our daily lives.