Overpowering cowardice

As a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr., his biographer and an editor of his papers, I was not only offended but hurt that just before Thanksgiving somebody tore down and removed an artistic display of an MLK quote on moral courage that I had created outside the Center for Community Engagement in Paresky.

The words of King that someone sought to censor were: “Courage faces fear and thereby masters it. Cowardice represses fear and is thereby mastered by it. Courageous people never lose the zest for living. Cowardly people, overwhelmed by the uncertainties of life, lose the will to live. We must constantly build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.”

Why would somebody be so troubled by compassionate words encouraging us to overcome cowardice (a human condition) and to act courageously?

When the modern civil rights movement was born on this day, Dec. 5, 1955, in Montgomery, Ala., the black community had anointed 26-year-old MLK as its leader, but his own admitted fear had made him reluctant to join. As he often said, he was far from fearless. He believed Gandhi had been fearless, as well as many of King’s co-workers like Rosa Parks, Fred Shuttlesworth, Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses (who was here at the College in 2005 and 2010 and is President Obama’s own personal hero). King believed that “courage is acting in the face of fear.” He did this many times, scared to death.

Most notably, King risked everything (including his own life) when he condemned the Vietnam War at New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, one year before his assassination. “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” he declared that night. “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony. But we must speak.”

It is hardly enough to point out the sad irony of a cowardly person tearing down words of a great but humble leader exhorting all of us to overcome our inborn cowardice and rise to a more dignified life of moral courage. I’d prefer to see this act of silencing as a metaphor for all of us in the College community, struggling to find the courage to feel honestly and talk truthfully about how we are learning to respect each other and value our differences – having, each one of us, grown up in a society that has socialized us to fear, distrust and thus disrespect the Other – a person of different color, gender, faith, class, nationality, sexuality or any combination.

As many in our College community have said, the only way to get to know each other behind our “frames,” behind our fear, is to talk honestly to each other about who we are, how we see the world and how we’d like to change ourselves and this world. This is where real moral courage comes in. It is not hard to celebrate differences, though we don’t do enough of it. What is really tough is to affirm and respect differences so ardently that we are able to question or even criticize (politely, constructively) those manifestations of difference that we do not understand, or that need to be clarified or that we intelligently disagree with – not just on campus or at home but around this wide world that so many of us are getting to know up close and personal.

To use an extreme example, I value the moral courage of writer Alice Walker who condemned genital mutilation in African countries some years ago when indigenous women in these countries were silenced from speaking out against this crime, and when some of Walker’s feminist colleagues in the U.S. were self-censored to speak out against it (just as some feminists today are unable unequivocally to condemn sexual slavery).

I was heartened by the Nov. 14 Record editorial calling for a campus movement, in effect, of informal, everyday discussions about difference and discrimination; for students, staff and faculty “focused on breaking silence around these issues … to encourage organic discussions all over campus and help individual students engage with these issues in a personal way” (“Taking campus culture into our own hands,” Nov. 14).

As one potential solution, I’d like to propose that the College commit to creating a culture of semester-long, dorm-based weekly dialogues (all four years), encouraged but not required by Junior Advisors and Baxter Fellows, who would be specially trained as facilitators. I helped lead a campus-wide program like this at a large private university in California – it rocked.

Let us not tear down words on a wall that scare us. Let us tear down the walls that keep us from sharing our fears and thus keep us from sharing our lives.


Stewart Burns, civil rights historian and author of the award-winning MLK biography To the Mountaintop, is coordinator of community engagement at the College.

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