In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I wanted to post here my Community Meeting message from this past Friday. Every Friday at Harlem Academy we gather as a Middle School and teachers share a reflective message with the students and staff that connects to our school’s creed and mission. In leading my meeting this past week, I wanted to share how empathy and compassion are core to the legacy of Dr. King. In particular, I wanted to illustrate how empathy is key to solving our current threats in the world and our country and that the legacy of Dr. King is not static, that today is a day of service that should further the goals and ideals this great man stood for.
We all know who Dr. King was. From his emergence during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, to his arrest in Birmingham, the march in Selma, and of course perhaps his most famous moment in his “I Have a Dream Speech.” Dr. King believed in the ideals of our nation’s founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Most importantly, that all men are created equal, that the individual – regardless of color or creed – has worth, and that we are all entitled to certain “unalienable” rights and freedoms.
But Dr. King lived in a time when these rights and freedoms were not protected for African Americans in our country. King fought tirelessly for the enforcement of equal rights for all citizens. He fought to end racism and poverty. He stood for his convictions and his belief in the true nature of this nation’s promise to its citizens. He stood for these things in the face of threats, beatings, jailing, and ultimately gave his life in furthering the movement. He preached using non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to achieve his goals. Using one’s body to create tension that can lead to dialogue and compromise or resolution of our differences. It meant never speaking ill back. It meant never hitting back. In the face of violence and hatred, Dr. King refused to give in to hate or violence. Instead, he preached love and empathy when confronted by the worst in humanity.
In November of 1957, after having battled and one the right to first-come-first-served seating on Montgomery buses, Dr. King spoke to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (Montgomery, Alabama):
"We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."
To me, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Day should be about his living legacy. How Dr. King used empathy and compassion to be a man of great integrity and a man of great accomplishments. Throughout his life, Dr. King was confronted with bigotry and hatred but he turned that negativity into something positive. I think King’s life is a roadmap to how we can pick up the mantle and continue the struggle for equality here at home and even progressing beyond our borders to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. I want to share with you how empathy in the world, our nation, and in our own lives can bring us closer to King’s “dream” globally.
The world is a really big place. There are lots of different languages, religions, ethnicities, beliefs, and various forms of government. The world is truly a diverse place and that diversity is really important. Diversity sparks creativity, helps us think differently about problems and solutions, and it makes life a rich and fulfilling experience. Unfortunately, diversity also leads to conflict and disagreements. There exist in this world, people who choose to use violence and hatred to make their arguments. We usually call these people terrorists, in that they aim to terrorize us and want to use that fear to control us.
We have all seen the horrific events that unfolded in France last week. Three terrorists were responsible for the death of seventeen people over a period of days. These terrorists were angry over a newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, that made political cartoons that they felt were offensive and distasteful of their religion, Islam. They tried to use violence to silence the cartoonists’ free speech. But what these terrorists were actually doing, was trying to silence us all. The surviving journalists and cartoonists, their families, and the citizens of France could have cowered in fear or sought the path of hatred and violence in the wake of these attacks. However, what we saw instead was empathy and compassion. “Je Suis Charlie” (I Am Charlie) became the rallying cry of the people, and soon after, the world. Not everyone holding up such signs in support agreed with what Charlie Hebdo printed but they all believed in the ideal of freedom of speech as being more important than personal tastes. In fact, in the first issue since the shooting, the paper has printed a new cover with the words “ALL IS FORGIVEN.” In an interview, one of the surviving cartoonists said that the terrorists can kill the staff of Charlie Hebdo but the paper and the ideals it stands for can never be silenced.
In these moments of crisis it is natural to feel anger and sadness. It is also normal to harbor feelings of revenge. But, how can we better live up to the legacy of Dr. King and use empathy to overcome those innate urges? How will you stick to your convictions and use empathy in the face of violence and intolerance? In 1963, Dr. King said:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The world rejected this violence as an attack on our ideal of free speech. Though France near-unanimously voted to authorize more military force against ISIS (those who the attackers claimed they were allied with) – and indeed post-9/11 the United States made the same decision against Al Qaeda – the reaction of the citizens of this global community was very different. Millions of citizens spontaneously marched on the streets of Paris in a show of defiance, that we will not let terrorism shape the world we live in or strip our freedoms from us. Empathy and unity is at the core of the people’s reaction to these attacks. Empathy is not justifying or defending the works of the terrorists, but seeking to understand. From understanding can come dialogue, consensus, brotherhood and peace.
We can see this struggle in our own nation as well. We were founded on the big ideas of freedom and liberty. We were founded in the belief of empathy, the ideal that all men are created equal. We, in the Constitution, set out a goal for our nation: to form a “more perfect union.” That we, as citizens, have a common goal to always push for more inclusion in our democracy and that equal rights and protections should be available for all.
To protect these ideals domestically, we have police forces. But recently we have borne witness to a series of horrific and violent acts against ordinary citizens at the hands of the police. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and a slew of unnamed and unknown others have brought the issue of police brutality to the nation’s attention. Many have protested in the streets, on television, and on-line. Some of these protests have turned to violence or looting and vandalism. One man even took the lives of two innocent police officers here in our city. But these reactive “protests” have been roundly rejected by the majority of Americans. We no longer see those scenes of violence from Ferguson. They have given way to peaceful protests (like the die-ins at Grand Central) and community meetings where leaders, citizens, and police dialogue about how to forge a better relationship between the police and the communities they serve. Dr. King also said:
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
Empathy lets cooler heads prevail. It lets us see that indeed not all police act in the way we saw in those brutal killings. It lets us see that the police are here to serve and protect all citizens, regardless of race or creed.
They key to combating terrorism, hatred, violence, and indeed even petty and simple annoyances in your life that others can cause, is empathy. Empathy is to put yourself in another person’s shoes and really try to see things from their perspective.
There are over eight million people living here in our city. New York city is like a microcosm of our nation, and even the world. We are a sea of diversity and like in the world that diversity can sometimes lead to conflict. Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than when we are packed onto subways like sardines during rush hour. I want to conduct an empathy experiment. Imagine the following scenario:
It has been a long day at school. You’ve made your way through the cold and the snow to the crowded subway station at 110th street. As the train approaches and the doors open, you squeeze your way onto the packed train. Suddenly your music from your headphones is completely drowned out by the loud and seizing hacks, coughs, and sniffles of the sick passenger standing next to you. You are momentarily distracted from the retching noise by a pain in your foot. The woman seated in front of you keeps nodding off and dropping her large, heavy bag on your feet. You arrive at your stop, weave in and out of unmindful straphangers to get out of the train only to be stuck behind a person on the stairs who is moving at a snail’s pace. All you want to do is be home.
Now rewind your commute and try it again. This time in place of that anger and indignation, try using empathy to encounter those “transgressors.” The man retching and sneezing next to you on the train? He is a recent immigrant to this country who does not have health insurance, nor does he get paid sick time at his hourly wage job. He has to commute and work to help support his wife and children. That woman who carelessly keeps dropping her bag on your foot? She is a nurse who just worked a sixteen hour shift at the hospital saving lives. That slowpoke who was taking their time going up the stairs? It was an octogenarian who needs a cane to walk.
Do you feel less angry? Do you feel less hatred towards those people? Their stories do not necessarily justify their behaviors but it helps you understand that they are not acting with malice. In stopping to think about others, you may also realize what you were unaware of doing that might be angering those around you. If you can resist the urge to get angry, speak curtly, or act violently towards the annoyances, inconveniences, and even outright injustices that you face in your life, you can begin to make this world in the image of Dr. King. Act to replace those feelings of “bitterness and hatred” with empathy and love. Anger begets anger but so too does empathy beget empathy.
Empathy and awareness were what Dr. King stood for. It took integrity for him to commit to and defend his beliefs. Empathy was the tool he used to maintain that courage and introspection to face the violence and hatred he would encounter. This day is not just about what Dr. King has done for African Americans and this nation. Rather, it should also be about what you can do to continue his legacy and make this world a better place. Today should be a day of service. If not service to a community than at least service to yourself in living a more empathetic and inclusive life.
The world is a big and diverse place. Giving in to hatred and violence only brings out the worst in diversity and indeed all of us. To truly cherish and enjoy the fruits of diversity, we must use empathy, love, and understanding. Because, as Dr. King said in 1964:
“We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”