A couple months ago I visited Patrick in Portland. He was still in school, so I had some time to kick around on my own. I decided I'd take his bike and cruise around in downtown Portland, to check out the scene but mainly to investigate Powell's Books, a four story book store comprising an entire city block. Save for a cafe in the corner, the entire space is filled with books.
On the second floor, in the north west corner, they have two stacks dedicated to books about former presidents. Along the walls surrounding the stacks are books about African-American History--one of those walls is solely civil-rights. I couldn't have found a better place, having just come off of 5 extremely full months working for Barack Obama.
I spent about 3 hours in those two sections, pouring over books about Benjamin Franklin, slavery, James Polk, Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Bill Clinton, FDR, JFK, RFK, MLK, and so, so much more. Finally, I tallied the books that I picked up: 14. I groaned. Too much! I thought, and began the process of whittling down my choices.
The one on James Polk? I didn't even know the name before I saw the book. How much can I really want to read him.
3 books about Robert Kennedy? He was killed before he could make much of a difference, right? Do I really need three?
Logic or not, I couldn't part with those books. So I decided instead just to get them. I had 2 months before I would go to school, I figured. I can knock plenty of these down.
So I piled them up and began to navigate my way back to the register (they almost reached my nose), and had the whole pile shipped to my house. Nearly 3 months later, I haven't finished a single book. I am, however, closer than I've been yet. Since I've arrived in Madison, I've spent more time reading than in the last three months combined.
The book is Martin Luther King Jr.'s Why We Can't Wait, his account of the direct-action they took to end segregation in Birmingham. I've also started reading Malcolm X Speaks a compilation of speeches he gave in the year before his assassination put together by his wife Betty Shabazz.
Reading this books have brought with them moments of intense reflection. I wasn't born into a time when segregation was legal, yet I grew up in a village that in 2000 was 91% white, and 2.5% black, next to a city that is 43% white and 39% black and in a county that is 65.5% white and 25.5% black. In my lifetime, my city has known no riots, nor serious protest. Perhaps this is solely ignorance, but I haven't seen my community unite under any banner or behind any cause, for better or worse. We have been a community of complacency.
I wonder where the energy and the anger from the civil-rights movement went, about whether the quality of our leaders has diminished, and how to break from our current status and bring together again in revolution.
I wonder why I haven't read X before, why the only exposure I had to MLK was copying his "I have a Dream" speach in grade school as detention and reading "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail" in AP English.
I wonder why I wasn't more impressed by what I already knew about both these men, and seeing the profound affect these men had on their society, I wonder why we don't have leaders like that today.