Remembering Martin Luther King
For today’s post I want to honor in some small way the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While women’s struggle for equality in the LDS church is hardly equivalent to African Americans’ struggle for civil rights, the story of Dr. King’s leadership in the civil rights movement inspires me greatly, and models the steadfast hope and courage that I hope to have as a feminist and as a person. I feel admiration and gratitude for people who have stood for truth in the face of discrimination and prejudice, as he so bravely and eloquently did.
I re-read King’s two most famous speeches this weekend, “I Have a Dream” and “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” and was moved to tears, not least because he was assassinated the day after delivering “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” There are things from these speeches that stand out to me as being relevant to Mormon feminism. It’s hard to write about them without sounding hyperbolic, because the suffering caused by segregation and discrimination that King worked against was/is quantitatively and qualitatively different from the inequalities women experience in the Church. But with that in mind, there are some similarities.
First, the bad check. The March on Washington in 1963, King said, was in a sense to cash a check.
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”
I think that when the authors of the scriptures wrote that all are alike unto God and when the authors of the Proclimation on the Family wrote that mothers and fathers are equal partners, they signed a promissory note of gender equality in God’s church. We do not have that yet. If the Church is to live up to its ideals, then it must overlay the parchment on which that promissory note was written with the reality of what Mormon women have been given and see where the gaps are. Because they’re there.
Secondly, King noted that when one part of a society is oppressed, it brings down the entire society. In “I Have a Dream” he said, “many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.” When the Church limits the participation and contributions of over half its members, everyone loses. Everyone loses.
Finally, in “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” King recounts the parable of the Good Samaritan and relates it to the topic at hand, which was the 1968 sanitation worker’s strike in Memphis.
“And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight. …. The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?'”
The question for me as a Mormon feminist is similar. It’s not, What will happen if I speak up in Sunday School? What will happen if I speak the truth of my experiences? What will happen if I write letters to Church authorities? What will happen if I ask hard questions? The question is, what will happen if I don’t?
I know the answer to that – nothing will happen. Nothing will change. And it really is time that a few things did.