Can’t We All Be Maladjusted?

“I would say about individuals, an individual dies when (s)he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can fight against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

--Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel speaking in 1965

Lost in a Sunday morning reverie, the sun glinting off the undulating sea and the music of elephant seals barking dawn greetings to each other, I glanced left barely in time to see a threesome of female walkers, all in their late 60s, striding energetically toward me.

Animated in discussion, the blond-ish woman nearest me turned toward her companions.

“And I was like, ‘Hell-o?!’ I mean, really??” She craned her neck toward them, her disbelief apparent on her face.

“Yea, ‘Hello-o?!’ Whoa, what was he thinking?” her Black friend echoed back to her in obvious agreement, the woman between them nodding her approval.

I smiled at their verve, their currency with the turns-of-phrase employed by pre-teens and adolescents exchanging the latest gossip. And, frankly, I marveled at the composition of the trio itself.

Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his 82nd birthday last week. In the four decades since his death, the US has undoubtedly advanced great strides toward racial equality. Indeed, few fellow Sunday morning walkers would have been astonished to see a Black woman walking companionably with two White women in Santa Cruz, California on a morning in 2011. Yet, were it not for the women and men who joined Martin Luther King, Jr., in his nonviolent resistance of racial discrimination, segregation, and other human rights abuses perpetrated against people of color, that triad of walkers would most likely have been lily white.

An oft-cited, judiciously truncated version of a rather tasteless Groucho Marx quote asserts, “Behind every successful man is a woman.” Though the limelight trained on MLK, Jr., and other men who followed his lead in taking up nonviolent means to resist and end racism is justified, I often wonder, “What about the women behind those men?”

Let’s start with Alberta Christine Williams King, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mother. In spite of great odds, Alberta completed high school and obtained a teaching certificate in 1924. Though prohibited from teaching once she was married, she instilled in her children a profound commitment to education and provided them with the maternal love and comfort that enabled each to develop the fortitude to weather years of beatings and incarceration, death threats and verbal abuse in their quest for equality.

A 42 year-old seamstress, Rosa Parks, committed a courageous act of peaceful resistance and, in so doing, set off a 381-day bus boycott across Montgomery, Alabama to protest segregation laws and human rights abuses against Blacks. Rosa Parks’ defiance earned her imprisonment, unemployment, and regular death threats. Nonetheless, her civil disobedience inspired a mass movement involving women, men, and children that culminated in the November 1956 Supreme Court ruling that Montgomery’s segregated bus service was unconstitutional. Initiated on December 1, 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott marked one of the largest and most successful challenges to racial segregation up to that time. As the appointed leader of the Montgomery Improvement Association (which managed the boycott), this popular act of “maladjustment” to segregated services also propelled MLK, Jr., to the forefront of the civil rights movement.

The Club from Nowhere, a group of Montgomery women who baked pies and cupcakes and sold them to help fund the Montgomery bus boycott. The brainchild of Georgia Gilmore, a cafeteria worker fired for her organizing efforts, the Club from Nowhere women raised funds for gas and station wagons that transported bus boycotters. (Listen to Georgia Gilmore's story here.)

Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, was a gifted intellectual and committed civil rights activist in her own right. Coretta Scott’s mother, Bernice McMurray Scott, had modeled the determination that would inspire her daughter to resist wave after wave of oppression, daily driving the school bus that carried the Black youth of Heilberger, Alabama the nine miles to the nearest Blacks-only high school. Coretta followed her sister, Edythe, to Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio, where MLK Jr.’s sister-in-law was the first African-American student under Antioch’s Program for Interracial Education. Coretta transferred out of Antioch on a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where earned a degree in voice and violin. Coretta, a talented soprano, often incorporated music in her civil rights work.

In the years after her husband's 1968 assassination, Coretta Scott King assumed leadership of the struggle for racial equality herself, establishing the King Center in Atlanta. She widened her justice and peace activities, and became active in the Women's Movement. As early as December 1968 (eight months following her husband’s assassination), she called for women to "unite and form a solid block of women power to fight the three great evils of racism, poverty and war," during a Solidarity Day speech. She was prominent in global campaigns aimed at racial equality and peace, including the anti-apartheid and nuclear disarmament movements.

Around the time of the 2008 elections, someone brilliantly drew the narrative thread linking our first Black President to his predecessors: “Rosa sat so Martin could walk so Barack could run.” (Listen to a beautiful song by Amy Dixon Kolar based on this.)

As we celebrate the 82nd birthday of MLK, Jr., I am ever-grateful for Rosa’s maladjustment to being told, at the end of a 12-hour shift as a seamstress, to move to the back of the bus so a White man could sit.

I am appreciative of Coretta’s discomfort with homophobia and anti-gay bias and her bold determination to link this contemporary social movement to the civil rights movement through their common quest for freedom from discrimination, segregation, unequal treatment – indeed, for full civil rights. "Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood", she stated in a 1998 speech. "This sets the stage for further repression and violence that spread all too easily to victimize the next minority group."

And I am profoundly grateful to all the women-behind-the-men around the world who, courageously and without accolades, do their utmost to ensure that the highest ideals of civility, equality, fairness, security, and opportunity find practical expression for every human being, without exception.

Perhaps no one expresses the capacities of the great women who (too) often stand behind great men more eloquently than South Africa’s diva of the music of resistance, the late Miriam Makeba:

I look at an ant and I see myself…endowed by nature with a strength much greater than my size so I might cope with the weight of a racism that crushes my spirit. I look at a stream and I see myself… flowing irresistibly over hard obstacles until they become smooth and, one day, disappear.

For women’s strength and fluidity, and for collective maladjustment that leads to smoothing out obstacles and finding new ways of connecting and being in community, today I give thanks.