Honoring more than one icon
Melissa Lowery says it's important to see Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a way to celebrate all heroes of equality, diversity and inclusion
Decades after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Melissa Lowery says the national holiday that honors the Civil Rights leader should now be illuminated by a different light, especially in the time of Black Lives Matter.
Lowery, the director of diversity and inclusion at Jesuit High School in Portland, grew up in West Linn and led Lake Oswego High School staff in a discussion in late November about her documentary "Black Girl in Suburbia," in which African-American girls share stories about living in a mostly white culture. Her presentation was part of an ongoing effort at LOHS to make school culture more inclusive in response to recent racist incidents (See story, in the News section online).
But Lowery told The Review this week that she would like to inspire people to see Martin Luther King Jr. Day — which will officially be celebrated across the country on Monday — differently, and to consider its meaning as an extension of a longtime movement.
"I think Martin Luther King has become this unicorn, where he's not even a real person anymore," Lowery says. "It feels watered down — his legacy, who he is."
King, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929, was a pastor and a renowned speaker who received a doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University. He was a key organizer of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott and other efforts to end segregation in the 1950s and 60s. He delivered the famed "I Have a Dream Speech" during a peaceful March on Washington in 1963, and he raised his voice many more times in the name of equal rights for people of color.
A recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, King was assassinated in 1968 before he could lead a protest in solidarity with striking garbage workers in Memphis, Tenn., according to nobelprize.org.
What Lowery wants now is for people to see that Martin Luther King Jr. Day is certainly an important day for honoring a Civil Rights icon. But she doesn't want recognizing Civil Rights to be a celebration that happens only once a year and doesn't recognize other leaders who played a part in the movement.
She wants King to be recognized, she says, but not to be held up as a token example of civil rights leadership.
"It's like Black History Month," she says. "Instead of having a month, we should be celebrating and talking about black history all year."
Lowery also notes that people who aren't African-American may now be noticing the Black Lives Matter movement. But the pain and frustration of the commonality of police brutality against black people nationwide has been building for years, she says, and the issue is not new.
Civil Rights leaders condemned authorities' attacks on activists fighting for desegregation or standing up for their right to vote in the 1950s and 60s, and journalists captured the violence on video and in photos, Lowery explains. Now, most people have a camera in their pocket, she adds, and that enables people to see more of the violence against people of color that has been happening all along.
"We have these moments of eruption in our history, and now the pot's bubbling," she says.
Lowery believes people are ready to take off their rose-colored glasses when it comes to looking at the race issue.
"It's there," she says. "It's very difficult to deny. We are now having a national conversation about race and racism, which I don't know has happened before. Well, it has happened before, but it tends to kind of fade away."
Lowery says more white people are becoming aware that people of color live differently in this country, and there has been a huge awakening. But the Black Lives Matter movement of today is inextricably linked to civil rights struggles of the past, she says.
"It's the same thing," she says. "It's still our history. It's still there. Oppression has always been there."
Lowery fears racist behaviors, but she also says she worries that, in the name of solidarity, people will not recognize diversity. Instead, she says, we should recognize and respect each other's differences and not pretend to be color blind.
We need to celebrate our differences, she says, not fear them.
Lowery recalls that when she was a child, one of her school teachers was so afraid of reading the word "Negro" that she made Lowery — the only African-American child in the classroom — read aloud every word of the scant five pages on African-American history that appeared in her textbook.
Today, Lowery says she knows that there is so much more to black history than those five pages she read.
For starters, other Civil Rights leaders besides King — including the late Bayard Rustin and John Lewis, who is now a U.S. representative for Georgia's 5th Congressional District — were among the planners of the March on Washington. The late educator Dorothy Height played a key role as the president of the National Council of Negro Women for four decades. Poet Maya Angelou, who died in 2014, and novelist James Baldwin, who died in 1987, are other outspoken heroes, Lowery says.
She says the beauty of Martin Luther King Jr. Day is that it can ignite interest in black history. It can inspire people to delve deeper. But it should be seen as a beginning, she says, not a one-and-done event for the whole year.
"It's great to celebrate his life, and it's something I feel is important," she says. "But I also think it's important to talk about James Baldwin and the work that he's done and the movement that he's been a part of, and Maya Angelou, and all of these other great activists."
CELEBRATING KING'S LEGACY
The Lake Oswego Baha'i community holds a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day every year in keeping with the Baha'i tenet of freedom for all.
The local religious group couldn't hold the event, called "A Life of Service," at the Lake Oswego Public Library as usual this year because of a remodeling project. But event organizer Cheryll Simmerman says Lake Oswego United Church of Christ volunteered to let her use their church this Sunday for the annual celebration. So this year, it's going to be bigger than ever.
The church also houses the Beit Haverim Jewish community. Simmerman sings in the Lake Oswego Baha'i choir, but she also sings with the Beit Haverim and LOUCC choirs as well, so there was an automatic connection among the three faith communities. And they're all going to participate in the event.
"It's almost like serendipity," Simmerman says. "Maybe this was meant to be."
Children from all three organizations will be the focus. Along with the adults, the children will be singing songs that include "Peace is a Comin'" and "Amazing Grace."
Quotes from King also will be read, including "Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that."
Simmerman's daughter, Beth Yazhari, says it's hard to fully address the Civil Rights struggle in one event.
"It's just a start, right?" Yazhari says. "And, obviously, one yearly event can't solve issues. But what it can do is remind people to work together to eradicate the prejudice in our society."
Yazhari's daughter Julia, a homeschooled eighth-grader, adds that it's important to talk about race. "I think unity of the races is such an important topic," she says.
The event will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday at Lake Oswego United Church of Christ, 1111 S.W. Country Club.