On Monday, Jan. 20, members of the Baylor community participated in another year’s observation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While juniors and seniors continued to volunteer in various service projects, this year’s MLK Day changed from conversational to educational for the freshmen and sophomores.
In previous years, these classes would watch a topical movie, separate into groups, and discuss with one another their opinions on the film and its overarching themes. This year, they were taught different aspects of black history in rotating sessions led by teachers and juniors and seniors, focusing on topics such as music, poetry, local history, lesser-known historical figures, and more. Some in the community pointed to discomfort from parents and staff surrounding student discussion of politics as the reason for the shift in the holiday’s pedagogy; however, true this may be, there’s value in both discussion of the present and education about the past. Moreover, equipping students with a familiarity with history serves to better their subsequent conversations. So, while last year’s MLK Day article focused on the importance of listening, it’s time to explore the importance of reflecting on what has preceded us—and how understanding the past allows us to understand (and improve upon) the present.
While we acknowledge the fact that the events we study happened in real life, we sometimes find it difficult to draw a connection to ourselves. We don’t walk through the city pondering the plight of the people who were enslaved on its soil, nor do we look to the river and think of those who fled north in its waters. It’s hard to imagine slavery happening here, and it’s hard to feel responsible for being aware—but it did, and we need to. We need to learn the name of Jacob Cummings, one of the first in Chattanooga to establish a local Underground Railroad escape route. He fled from the riverbank in Moccasin Bend, stopped at Williams Island (the island across from our campus), and escaped the South in a canoe. We need to learn the history of the area now known as Miller Plaza, where dozens of slaves were bought and sold daily. We need to think of Ed Johnson, who was lynched on the Walnut Street bridge in 1906 and whose last words were, “God bless you all. I am an innocent man.” We need to remember the KKK crosses burning in Alton Park, and remember the families who lived there, terrified of stepping foot outside.
More importantly, we need to consider the families who live there now. When Martin Luther King, Jr., in his most famous speech, declared, “Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee,” we pointed at his words as proof that we were incentivized and that we acted. Our city patted itself on the back with one hand and pushed black families out of the Northshore, away from Warehouse Row, and into Alton Park and Amnicola with the other. At the base of Lookout Mountain, current African-American families make one-tenth the annual income of their wealthy neighbors on the mountain. Some of our public schools are made up of student populations that are nearly entirely African-American or Latinx, held in place by a cycle of poverty remains escapable. No matter how far north these Chattanoogan families go, it will remain this way—unless we recognize the cycle and work with those who it affects to break it.
Recognition of the past allows you to reconcile the moral wrongdoings of the present. Upon diving into the racial history of our city, we find that the problems didn’t necessarily disappear after the Civil Rights Movement. Instead, we’ll find that our injustices, while holding the same patterns, evolved into something tricky and modern and often overlooked. These “patterns,” in this context, seem to show lack of representation; so while we must work to better the lives of the people around us, those of us who are unaffected cannot stake claim to their narrative. What we must do is piece together bits of history, teaching ourselves how to step back, look at the forms they take, and recognize their shadows in our society today. After days like MLK Day, when we’re taught to “recognize the cycle,” we should feel galvanized to do what we can, move forward as far as we can, and end up, ideally, on the right side of history.