Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have come to think, re-centers me, especially since I moved to Montgomery, Ala. The holiday is a day dedicated to service to others but also is meant to recommit to what we do in our daily lives. What I do is teaching students about the media. Specifically, I like to think that I teach them how to read, criticize, use and often resist media manipulation. In a word, to become ‘medialiterate.’ I also teach public speaking and human communication to students who are not majoring in the field. The ability to appropriately and effectively communicate in public is considered a powerful tool and one that politicians should be able to use to better convey their messages.
So I thought about my students today while I was sitting in the Dexter Avenue Church. I attended the service that the Bobby Jackson and the World Heritage Organization have been sponsoring for 36 years. As I was handed the program, I was pleased to see that Governor Robert Bentley was to speak also, right after he was sworn in, perhaps four hundred feet away, in front of the State Capitol, surrounded by the local political intelligentsia. Sure, I wanted to hear what this retired dermatologist had to say to the people who had gathered to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. After all, he had admirably promised during his gubernatorial campaign not to draw his $121,000 annual paycheck until he reached his goal of lowering the unemployment rate (currently at 9%) to 5.2%. Not an easy task, according to the forecasts for recovery of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama (“Bentley's salary hinges on him keeping jobs promise,” by Philip Rawls - January 17, 2011, Montgomery Advertiser).
“The teleprompter went off,” Gov. Bentley said, referring to the inaugural speech he just delivered. He had just begun with his remarks. People in the audience laughed. A nice attention grabber after all. But then, becoming aware of his audience, and of the occasion, Gov. Bentley right out of the gate announced himself to be color blind. To further prove his point, he produced an anecdote telling of a time when, asked how many African American patients he had had in the many years of his practice, he answered he wouldn’t know. Obviously he didn’t notice that he was in a church full of Black people. He didn’t even notice, when he told the audience that it’s not easy to trust a Republican governor. (Would he have said that in front of a bunch of wealthy White folks?) So Gov. Bentley may have done a bit of audience analysis there; yet the governor’s beliefs emerged strongly when he had to retrieve to a trope like the “I don’t see no color” in order to supposedly appeal to a “different” audience.
The reactions were timid and almost impromptu (or so it seemed) was Bentley’s attempt to further appeal to his audience, which, he assumed, was made up solely of Christians; in fact, he said that if they were Christian (“they have been saved,” “were filled with the Holy Spirit” as he put it, perhaps galvanized by his standing behind a pulpit), then they were his brothers and sisters, and prompted whomever wasn’t (Christian) to become one. Bentley-the deacon and Sunday school teacher for over thirty years in Tuscaloosa wanted them to be his brothers and sisters, he remarked, as to show the extent of his Christian love. This conditional love and equality (this blind, yet equalizing love, at one condition) he offered to the audience as well as his attempt to show he’s no racist, speaks volume of his reactionary beliefs and, I hope to be disproved, his future policies.
Gov. Bentley said he visited Martin Luther King’s office downstairs from the sanctuary; when asked if he wanted to sit in his chair, he refused. I’m glad he did. As I’m glad he said Dr. King was one of the greatest men has ever lived in the United States and in the world. What the governor didn’t say was that his message, regardless of the importance of his presence at Dexter today, is quite different from the one of Dr. King. And I’m afraid no improvement in communication skills or public speaking will make it better.
Unfortunately, Gov. Bentley’s strain of Christianity admits only the saved ones in the graces of the Lord—and for all that matters, in the land of Alabama. This was not the message of Dr. King who was accepting of people of all races and religions. Dr. King was fighting for economic equality before he got shot. He wanted to eliminate poverty in the United States. He dreamed a dream that resonated since then throughout the entire world, still speaks to peoples of different upbringings and walks of life because of its universal message of peace, tolerance and solidarity. Dr. King rejected violence; like the vicious ones of the many killings and lynching and assassinations (too many) that occurred all over the South up until the 1990s (too recent), most of which are still, to this day, unsolved. Those martyrs who are remembered at the Civil Rights Memorial on Washington.
I understand that a message of unity is important for Alabamians; as an outsider, I want to believe that many people of goodwill have tried to heal social scars, perhaps through reconciliatory politics. Bentley said he will be the governor of all Alabamians. I doubt you can do that in a state where social inequality is so tangible.
I hope Gov. Bentley won’t forget the children of his state, their health and education. I hope he will be reminded, instead, that counties are different in Alabama and that different communities have different needs. Some definitely more urgent than others. They are not all the same as the governor suggested today, and his attention to them shouldn’t be equal. Because, as Dr. King wrote from a jail in Birmingham in 1963, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So it won’t be by protecting the privileges of the few (chosen Christians) that we’re making this state and the world a safer place.
As his first public appearance as Governor, Bentley did anything but impress me. The Black woman who was sitting next to me in church asked me if I could email her the pictures of the governor (she had forgotten her camera, she said), even offered me money for the photo. I hope Gov. Bentley won’t disappoint her too much after all.