What It Looks Like in Public

As we prepare to celebrate our various holidays–Christmas for me, but I’ll gladly join toasts for the two I can’t spell–we might think ahead to the all-American holiday just weeks away.

This occurred to me last week when I attended Newburyport’s 2nd Annual William Lloyd Garrison Lecture which cited and quoted Martin Luther King several times in its one-hour duration and the 20-minute Q&A that followed.

Indeed, with the title, “The Gospel According to William Lloyd Garrison: Anti-Racism & the American Truth,” we might have expected to hear the foremost abolitionist of the 19th Century compared to the foremost Civil Rights leader of the 20th.

And if we heeded the word “Gospel” in that title, we would not have been surprised to hear the extent to which Garrison’s editorials were based on the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–as much as were King’s speeches a century later, and for the same reason.*

Both called for us to “be willing to surrender comforts to expose… elements that bring ill to society,” as I gleaned from the speech, but don’t hold your breath waiting to hear that tenet of Christianity among all the declarations of and wishes for joy and peace these next ten days.

As for the King Holiday, speaker Edward Carson, Dean of Multicultural Education at the nearby Governor’s Academy, forecasted what will happen. That much is fairly easy since it happens every year: A safe selection of quotations from MLK’s Dream speech all over the media, especially in advertisements, to reassure us that America has achieved racial harmony.**

“Cheap talk!” Carson called it, reminding us that King was an unrelenting “disrupter” of the American status quo in the Father Knows Best Fifties. He echoed King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for examples of what we need to hear in a year that could very well see the effective repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.***

“Be patient?” Carson mocked, summarizing advice from many white liberals in recent years, “Let’s just love each other in a way in which we don’t cause trouble or think about turmoil.” In a voice as loud and clear as Colin Kaepernick’s knee, Carson then gave his largely White audience an earful of Black: “We don’t have time for any of that stuff!”

Compare that to the title of King’s collected essays, Why We Can’t Wait. Or to the quote engraved on the pedestal of Garrison’s statue across from City Hall: “… I will not retract a single inch…”

About two decades older than Carson (unless he uses hair-dye), I can recall when King was literally the most hated man in America, which may be why I thought he sounded like King even when he wasn’t quoting him. More so with his numerous comparisons of King to Garrison, also most hated in his time.

If a white boy growing up in the Merrimack Valley could sense that, how deeply did Carson’s parents and grandparents experience it deep in the heart of Dixie?

Any description of Garrison’s and King’s legacies could be introduced by several lines Carson used to describe the lecture as he was giving it:

We’re not here to be popular, folks!

If you came to hear this romanticized, you came to the wrong lecture.

The silence of white liberals.

Invoking the “myth” of the “American Dream”:

I’m here to tell you about a nightmare that exists…

… problems that capitalism has tricked us into believing do not exist.

One phrase that recurred throughout the talk may sound incongruous or even off-putting to those not in attendance, but it does describe Carson’s gospel as well as all four gospels of the New Testament: “Radical Love.” Simply stated, it’s the willingness and readiness to speak and stand against injustice suffered by others.

Carson drove that home with “my favorite quote,” a line from Cornel West: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

For the rest of what Carson said in context with a delivery ranging from tongue-in-cheek to in-your-face, a look and listen to the YouTube post will be an hour well spent. Both audio and video are excellent.

Highlights include a jaw-dropping analysis of the American Constitution consistent with what Garrison said, and descriptions of the Holocaust Memorial in DC and the Lynching Memorial in Carson’s native Montgomery, Alabama, that put us right there. We gasp at empty shoes. We hear Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” before he says her name.

He mentioned how Newburyport’s involvement in the triangular slave trade made the city wealthy, but he stopped short of mentioning the role in it played by Caleb Cushing, a leading apologist for the slavocracy in the decades before the Civil War. If Carson really wanted to make us uncomfortable, he’d have asked how “local historians” as recently as 2014 picked Cushing, not Garrison, as the city’s “most notable citizen.”****

Stands to reason that some of them were in the audience or have caught the video by now. Will they remain as silent on that choice–made in their name–as they have been these past seven years?

Anyone in the audience may have flinched during the Q&A when he dissed the idea of assimilation. His answer reminded me of a distinction that Canadians often make between our two countries: We like to compare ourselves to a melting pot, while they regard themselves as a salad bowl.

Perhaps our national identity could serve as a unifying subject of “a conversation we need to have,” as Carson likes to say, on that Monday in mid-January.

As well as during the holidays, no matter how we spell them.

-30-

Edward Carson at the Old South Presbyterian Church in Newburyport observing William Lloyd Garrison’s 216th birthday. Newburyport Daily News photo by Michael Springer, native son of Pierre, South Dakota, and alumnus of South Dakota State University where he wrote memorable essays in my Freshman Composition class a mere 40 years ago.

*Gospel is an attractive word in a title, but not to be used lightly. Only time I used it was for a film review. Unfortunately, the Daily News archives do not reach that far back into 2009 when I described Gran Torino as “A Gospel According to Clint.”

**RE: Martin Luther King Day: Always struck me as ironic that we all take a day off to observe the life of a man who never stopped working. Long before social media, I unfriended people who regarded it as nothing more than a ski weekend. In recent years I hold my breath and count silently past ten every time an ad for a local furniture company appears on TV bellowing about a “Martin Luther King Day Blowout Sale.”

***King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is a staple of texts for college writing classes, or at least it was as late as 2002 when I taught my last class. As a model of parallel structure, point-counterpoint, use of metaphors, sense of sound, and turn of phrase, it was always the first thing I looked for in the table of contents of textbooks I considered. Its content makes it an ideal assignment for mid-January, the start of the spring semester. In the fall, I would schedule it for the holiday that now has at least five names.

****For more on Caleb Cushing, here’s the essay that I wrote for the Garrison Lecture website that was posted ahead of the event with links to the 2014 Daily News report and two responses to it: https://annualwilliamlloydgarrisonlecture.wordpress.com/2021/12/05/jack-garvey-why-here-why-newburyport/

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