MARTIN LUTHER KING, ABRAHAM  LINCOLN

AND

THE ENGLISH CLASSROOM




by
Dennis Lawrence


    I spent the better part of an hour looking for his grave in Arlington National Cemetery before I asked a park ranger for help. He informed me of what I should have known, that Martin Luther King was buried where he was born in Atlanta, Georgia. As I turned away he chuckled and said, " You don't think Martin King would have gotten himself buried in Robert E. Lee's front yard, do you?"

    My mistake was easy enough to rationalize; as a young man I had watched John, Martin, and Bobby laid to rest in day long television funerals, and I swear I saw those mules carry Martin across the Potomac bridge to the "front yard" of what had been Robert E. Lee's pre-Civil War home. As I stood on the Custis-Lee Mansion's lawn, I looked across the Potomac to the steps of the Lincoln memorial where Martin had made his greatest speech under the stony gaze of Abraham Lincoln.
 

    Dr. Martin Luther King made that speech just four months short of one hundred years after Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg, and King died just five days short of the 103rd anniversary of Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomatox. But the racial inequality King fought against dates to the failed promise of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and Lee's surrender.
    The writings of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King deserve to be studied in the English classroom as rhetorical models, but they should also be presented as mirrors of the past in whose reflection we see that the slavery of the Civil War, the bigotry of the years after it, and our racial discord today stem from the same problem ;  the refusal to accept all men as equals.
    Lincoln: wrestling in the midst of a great Civil War to both preserve the Union and free the slaves, but only when he believed he could do both.   King: struggling to keep his country out of a racial struggle perhaps more violent than the first, yet firmly committed to achieving the acceptance of African-American  as the equal of any other American. Discussions of the writings of these two men in the English classroom should focus on how both labored to gain equality for all and on how our students need to do the same.
    Lincoln a racist? The charge appalls me, but not some of my students who have formed this opinion based on the superficial Lincoln they have encountered. I ask students to look at the complex Lincoln as found in his reply to an 1862 newspaper editorial which called for an immediate emancipation of slaves something which Lincoln was not yet prepared to announce. Finding himself caught between the forces who demanded immediate abolition of slavery and those who wanted no part of such an action, Lincoln tried to pacify both sides in this reply.
    "If I could free the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that."
    This seemingly apathetic view toward the abolition of slavery is sometimes construed as racist by my students; perhaps it is, but I ask them to balance this with what Lincoln said just a year later when he rose to dedicate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There he once and for all dismissed our Constitutional forefathers' curious arithmetic that equated a Black citizen to three-fifths of a human being. The famous opening five words overshadow the more important final five words.

 
    Four score and seven years ago, our forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
    Lincoln's rounding off of the Constitutional fraction was his moral mathematical assertion that the war was as much about freedom and equality for Blacks as it was about preserving the Union; indeed, he combined these two concepts near the end of the speech when he declared "...this nation, under God shall have a new birth of freedom." Students who are asked to discuss Lincoln's apparent change of heart on slavery may discover that he had waited only until the moment was right; if students are then asked to reflect on their own struggles with racial prejudice, perhaps Lincoln becomes not a racist, but a role model for Americans today.
    Lincoln eventually came to believe that the four years of unimaginable bloodshed was God's punishment for all Americans' implicit acceptance of slavery, and he did not exempt himself from such condemnation. In his "Second Inaugural Address," he spoke of a punishment lasting far beyond the Civil War.
    Yet, if God wills that it (war) continue until... every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'
    Lincoln's words ring down through the ages like a curse dooming Americans to racial discord until we finally accept the concept of equality. Students who read this and other Lincoln speeches, will discover Lincoln's efforts to find freedom within the Union for all Americans. Abraham Lincoln, with human flaws and heroic traits, is part of the common American heritage whites and Blacks share. He was able to overcome not only the overwhelming political pressures of his time, but also, perhaps, his own misgivings about equality. This struggle is worthy of emulation for all Americans, white and Black.
 
    Dr. Martin Luther King struggled so. Like Lincoln, King was an American who wrestled with the question of equality for all Americans in their shared homeland. Unlike Lincoln, who used sweeping legislative powers to make laws freeing the slaves, King found it necessary to rely on an even higher authority to justify breaking immoral laws in order to make moral laws freeing minority Americans. King, arrested by a man named "Bull Conner" after an "illegal" demonstration, dealt with this question of laws and morality in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail."
    There are two types of laws: there are just laws and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all.'... Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personalities is unjust. All segregation laws are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality...
    Just as Lincoln had found himself trapped between two extreme points of view, so did King. He attempted to extricate himself through the logic of a syllogism. It would not work that neatly. His assertion that he could break any laws he deemed immoral lost him the support of some whites who were sympathetic to the plight of minorities in a Jim Crow country, but hesitant to advocate any action outside the law; his refusal to advocate more violent actions lost him the support of some Blacks who thought only aggressive actions would change the racist laws of a largely unconcerned nation.
    Yet, King lifted the argument for racial justice through nonviolence to a moral plane so far above the protests of these two extremes that when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that bright August day in 1963, he was already on the mountain top.
    It would be a mistake, however, to paint for our students the tempting portrait of Martin Luther King descending from heaven to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial godlike and infallible. The more accurate and valuable picture for our students is that of a complex American searching for a way to unite Americans who were poised on the brink of another civil war. Failure was a distinct possibility.  When Dr. King spoke that day, he spoke to an audience far beyond those jammed on the Washington Mall. He spoke to an America as racially divided as the America Lincoln spoke to at Gettysburg. He spoke of issues that had not been resolved by the four years of fratricide, so he lectured Americans on how that 100? year old struggle still extended into their lives.
 
    "Let Freedom ring," he thundered from the mountain top. And he spoke of the future brotherhood between descendants of slaves and slave owners; and he pointedly listed Stone Mountain, Georgia on whose face is carved the images of Confederate heroes, as one spot where racial freedom must ring. Then he turned to the state of racial relations in America today.
I have a dream that one day the State of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.
    Even though this speech was praised then and now as a rhetorical masterpiece, it rang hollow in the ears of some civil rights activists who wanted concrete, earthly plans, not dreams of the future. And as if in mocking answer to King's dream, only eighteen days after his speech four of the "little black girls" of Birmingham, Alabama King had spoken of in his speech were killed by a bomb tossed into their Sunday School class. King's presence in that city immediately afterward saved not only the citizens of Birmingham, but perhaps the nation, from a racial bloodbath.
 
    Students who study King's writings will see that his dream of equality through nonviolence, even in the midst of this nightmare of violence, is one of the greatest examples of intellectual courage and moral determination demonstrated by any one American in our history.  From this they can draw not only an understanding of the difficulty of the civil rights struggle then, but also an understanding of the commitment they too must make toward equality without violence today.

    In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, King proclaimed the success of his nonviolent approach as a victory won by all Americans.

 
    I do not consider this merely an honor to me personally, but a tribute to the wise and majestic courage of the millions of gallant Negro and white persons of good will who have followed a nonviolent course in seeking to establish a reign of justice and a rule of love across this nation of ours.
    Yet, there are few among us who would say that this justice and love rules across summation today, and in our English classrooms we need to continue the efforts of Dr. King to unite us. After admiring the imagery, syntax, and voice of Dr. King's speeches, we must turn the discussion to the issues he spoke of that have haunted our country since the first slave ships touched our shores.

    An honest, open discussion of racial attitudes sparked by a study of the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King will undoubtedly bring to the surface the racial tension many of our good hearted students often bury for the sake of "harmony"; we must be prepared to deal with those emotional bruises incurred and suffered by our students. But this is the type of discussion such pieces of literature demand if we are to break down the barriers of racial misunderstanding in our classrooms and move toward equality in or society.  Our task is more subtly defined than Lincoln's and King's; they fought against tangible, unjust laws. We must convince our students that these laws were only the surface representation of a racial prejudice that still exists. We will need all the help we can get to finally rid our nation of these attitudes. I suggest we get it from Martin and Abraham.

    Whenever I return to the Lincoln Memorial, I walk to where Martin Luther King spoke. As I stand juxtaposed between the ghosts of these two great Americans and the Confederate general's mansion across the river, I can still picture those mules crossing the Potomac. Perhaps the improbability of Martin Luther King resting in the nation's foremost National Cemetery is the bitterest truth of our shared but unequal American heritage. Perhaps a study of the historical context of our racial turmoil through the writings of the two Americans who led the two greatest racial revolutions in our country will lead to the necessary truths we must all discover before we can finally form one nation with not only liberty but justice for all.