The One About Being Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King

Welcome everyone to our celebration of the life of Martin Luther King and to this gathering which takes place on his birthday and provides us an opportunity to remember and to renew our commitment to the ideals that Martin Luther King stood for.

I wanted to share with you a story that was inspired by Martin Luther King. It is my story and it is why King is among my personal heroes; high in a pantheon that also includes Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.

I stand in awe of people who practice non-violent conflict resolution. Not by standing on the sidelines, or accepting unfairness as being inevitable, or quietly ignoring what we know is wrong or for settling for half a loaf. I stand in awe of those women and men, boys and girls who are unafraid to speak truth to power, who are restless, who are single minded, who are certain that none of us are free until all of us are free, who question, who reflect and who act; who let their lives speak.

So this is my story of how I was inspired by King and those that he walked with in pursuit of the world that they wanted where there will be peace, justice and an earth restored.

During the summer of 2009, I set about reading the Taylor Branch biography of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. I quickly became mesmerized. There was one story in particular, the story of the Freedom Riders that changed my life. I was considering applying for the Head of School job at Sandy Spring Friends School. Ken Smith had announced his retirement and, while I grew up in Sandy Spring and had dreamt since I was in college about starting a school, I had actually done other things instead and now, in my mid-fifties and never having worked at a school I found myself wondering whether I should throw my hat in the ring; I might not have a chance and I might not have another chance.

Everyone here has heard of the Freedom Rides. They took place in the South, they were acts of defiance, they were incredibly dangerous and they were so audacious, so cunning, such a reflection of peaceful resistance to tyranny that the whole world turned its gaze and watched in horror as fire bombs went off, as the Klu Klux Klan terrorized and as law enforcement officers turned and looked away. Buses exploded into flames and well-meaning people wrung their hands. Eventually, what happened is that the Chaplain of Yale University, William Sloane Coffin, announced that he was going to be a Freedom Rider. This forced President Kennedy’s hand. He had no choice but to intervene and protect the Freedom Riders. He couldn’t let something happen to Yale’s chaplain.

Before Coffin arrived on the scene, Branch described the Freedom Riders as consisting of three groups; African American pacifists inspired by Gandhi, Quakers and the truly insane.

That was my calling. I read that and I realized that I needed to find my bus and get on it. I had to align my inner life, my values, my thoughts and my feelings with an outer expression of how I would spend my time, what I would choose to do, what I would recognize as vital.

So I applied for the job and here I am. I am not comparing Sandy Spring Friends School to a bus or me to a Freedom Rider. Not by a long shot. I am simply saying that if I didn’t heed the calling, I would not be here sharing with you the conviction that we have an opportunity to make this place the community that we want to live in, that we have much work to do together, that when I hear recordings of Martin Luther King I often cry, that I am always uplifted and, inshallah, will continue to be inspired to strive for a hero’s courage that can face down snarling dogs, walk into raised batons with arms at my side, protect the innocent and know that the Light is more powerful than the Dark.

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