My freshman year in college, I sat in a small, dark classroom of no more than 20 students, crammed in one of several tiny desks formed in a semi-circle facing our professor. This was in the early 2,000's, when my only care in the world at that moment was staying awake long enough to get through classes.
Showing up by 5am for my strength & conditioning workout with our weights coach was not hard. Making it to the track every day at 3:30 for practice was not hard. As a lifelong student athlete and now one in college, it was easy to be dedicated to my sport and motivated to making my parents and my coaches proud. Going to college was just the tool that allowed me to keep doing what I loved back then. Showing up to an early morning class, though - that was hard. I always hated school and I hated sitting in class - especially one that up until that day, made us read "meaningless" books by old white people that I had no intention of caring about.
That morning, the professor sat on her desk, and hid her face as she held in front of her a thin, shiny, paperback book. On the cover was a very familiar face.
"The next book we are going to read is called, Strength to Love, by Martin Luther King, Jr.", she said.
For the first time that semester I took the right side of my face out from sitting sloppily in my right hand and sat up in my desk. I knew that this book was going to be about people being treated badly because of the color of their skin, and that was interesting to me.
Growing up my entire childhood in then, the only "minority-majority" small town in Iowa, taught me a lot of things. Being one of the few biracial families in town and being a young girl who looks like our white mom with a little sister always by my side who looks like our brown dad, taught me a lot of things. Being a student athlete playing competitive sports against nearly all-white towns, taught me a lot of things.
Just living in our town, one will learn the existence and ugliness of white supremacy, much more than one living in a town where everyone is the same. It seeps into every little crack and crevasse it can find its way into, only to show its ugly face when its power is threatened, and it needs to attack. I learned how it uses human beings for doing its dirty work. I learned how harmful it was to our youth, to whole communities, and to me and my family and friends.
In grade school, we didn't talk about racism unless it was tied to a history lesson.
We were taught as if discrimination was all in the past. We didn't learn about the violent side of the civil rights movement, or how much our government played a role in the genocide of native peoples and the heroes who fought against them. In 1999, I was a junior in high school and never learned that a Memphis jury UNANIMOUSLY deemed the United States government “guilty of conspiring to assassinate Dr. King Jr.” in a civil case by the King family during our annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. I didn’t learn about this until I was well into my 30s. We most definitely didn't learn about the farm workers' movement or immigrant rights movement, and why would we? Most of our parents were working long hours for little pay at the local meat packing plant while we sat in our desks at school.
I don't remember one teacher or coach ever sitting us down to ask how we were dealing with racism in our everyday lives.
Looking back, it was the student athletes who fought on the courts, on the mats, and in the fields when we were called racial slurs - it was the scrappers who fought with their fists in a shadowed alley to defend our town - it was the kids who befriended other kids who didn't look like them, talk like them, or eat the same food as them, and then stood up to their parents when they grunted with uncertainty. We had to rely on each other as kids to know our worth and our potential for greatness. It was the young people of West Liberty who were the town’s freedom fighters.
I didn’t know that reading “Strength to Love” would put me on an entirely different path in life, but it did.
Simply seeing a photo of Dr. King for me back then, represented a person who brought people together. He took risks and cared deeply about all people. He believed in the potential of human beings to be good and he believed in the power of love. That was enough for me to read the book and skip the cliff notes.I found out that I don’t agree with a lot of things Dr. King said, I don’t even believe in some of the same things he did, but his words lit up something inside of me that gave me the constant urge to not only fight for social justice, but to fight for myself.
For over 20 years, it’s been a book that I refer to often when I need guidance. It is a piece of inspiration for those who fight for social justice, but I would agree that for the first-time reader, it can also be a much-needed warning.
This kind of work is not chosen. It chooses you.
The most difficult battle you will face is whether or not you will accept the challenge, and it’s not only once. You have to recommit every-single-day. You will face criticism and self-doubt, and harassment, and burnout galore. You will feel alone and underappreciated.
Your relationships will suffer significantly.
If you have children, you will feel guilty for the time it takes away from them and will try to justify it by thinking you are changing their future for the better. You pray and hope that they understand your sacrifices someday. You will lose friends and family who fall victim to politics, who are influenced by media or who simply can’t take the pressure of being associated with you any longer. You will be paranoid that people are after you, and then oddly relieved when you find out they really are. You will cry, a lot. Especially the first time you feel betrayed by people you thought you knew and trusted and when you first witness in real life when power and profits are more valued than the lives of people in need.
You can imagine, it’s been a very hard 2022 for me and my family. I have no doubt that much of the heartache is a result of the chain reaction of events that began the moment I was elected to office, but Dr. King reminds me in his book that, “Through nonviolent resistance we shall be able to oppose the unjust system and at the same time love the perpetrators of the system.”
This is what it means to have the strength to love.
So many times this past year, I had to make the decision to not quit. Yes, it is much easier to quit, as it’s much easier for me to just hate those who work against me than to have the strength to love them. But, as Dr. King also said, “returning hate for hate only multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” We have so many stars in West Liberty who need that light to shine. So for that, I will choose to have the strength to love, so share light, and to believe that things can get better.
I can’t end this blog without including one of my most cherished videos of civil rights leader and the late Congressman John Lewis, the first black President of the United States, Barack Obama, and a room of inspired youthful leaders...