Sunday, January 17, 2010

"The Sermon We Ignore"

My friend John Timpane wrote a terrific op-ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.  He says it better than I could:

I was in sixth grade at a Quaker school in Philadelphia when Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were shot.  I had never heard of Dr. King. I had seen Kennedy on TV and had a notion that he was running for President, but I thought his more famous brother was better-looking.  My teacher, Mr. Miller, put up a photo of each man in the classroom. I thought Dr. King was better looking than Bobby Kennedy.  Maybe I had gazed too long at the photos of the Beatles in my bedroom--same full-on, life-sized faces as these--and this is why I responded to these as celebrity photos, or maybe the fact that the men had been murdered was simply incomprehensible.  I don't remember Mr. Miller talking about the assassinations, but he must have, because after that I thought I knew about Dr. King.

One Friday afternoon after we were dismissed, I ran back into the empty classroom to get something out of my desk. Mr. Miller was still there.  I remember him sitting at his desk with his chin in his hand, thinking deeply. The photos of King and Kennedy looked down on him.  I tiptoed in, feeling I had interrupted an adult almost naked in his vulnerability.  Mr. Miller told me to get what I needed, but he looked tired, and he didn't smile.

I was sure his demeanor had to do with the killing of two men whose importance I sensed but could not articulate.  Later I told my friends, "Mr. Miller was PRAYING."  

One thing this tells you is that Quaker families do not necessarily talk about social issues.  Mine didn't.  Quakers have a reputation for being at the forefront of social change, and those of us who weren't probably enjoy sharing the Light (so to speak) with those who were.  Of course we do.  It feels good to think of oneself as on the side of morality.

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