During this year (2018) many have noted two events that occurred 50 years ago (in 1968) that continue to have an impact on the lives of people around the world; I am one of those so-impacted. Even though I was alive at the time, it was not until many years later that I came to understand the impact these events had on me.
In 1968 I was 15 years old living in suburban Minneapolis, MN. Like many white, middle class, suburban American 15-year-old boys, I was caught up with school, sports, girls and trying to figure out who I was as a young person. My world, such as it was, was largely caught up in the comings and goings of my suburban town. I was aware of the growing tension in the nation around the Vietnam War. And I was vaguely aware of the Civil Rights Movement going on seemingly on the other side of the world in the American South. But like most of my peers, at the time I did not feel particularly connected to those major movements in U.S. history.
Three years later when I had to register for the military draft, Vietnam became very real as I considered what my options were if I were to be drafted into the military. A couple years after that when I was attending Duke University in Durham, NC I began to realize the significance of the Civil Rights Movement. But even then I would not realize how significant two events occurring in 1968 would have on my future.
The first event that impacted in 1968 was me was the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. I remember hearing of his death on the news, going into my parents’ bedroom, and telling my dad that MLK had been killed. Only five years earlier when I was in fifth grade, I remembered John F. Kennedy being assassinated and the impact it had on me; and now there was another killing of another important individual. Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement were not regular topics in our home, but as a family we often watched the six o’clock news with Walter Cronkite, and so we knew that something was desperately wrong in the South. Like many white parents in the North, my folks made it seem like the Civil Rights Movement applied to people other than us, and it would not be until decades later that I came to realize that we in the North were just as complicit as the South in the overt racism Dr. King was challenging and seeking to change.
When I went south to Duke for college, I was immediately struck by the reality of segregation, and the way many Southerners were still implicitly fighting the Civil War. I volunteered as a tutor during my first year in college and had more than one occasion to walk from the university to the church in the black community where we met our students. It became clear to me that the neighborhood across Erwin Road where the black folks lived was not served by the authorities in the same way as folks on my side of the street. During my junior year, I had a few occasions to visit the homes of some of Durham’s African American residents, and I was struck by how many times I saw pictures of Jesus and Dr. King hanging side-by-side over the mantles in their living rooms. During my senior year, I took a course in Black Religion and wrote a final paper on Dr. King’s philosophy of non-violence, which began a lifelong effort to learn as much about this amazing leader, as I could.
When I entered seminary in the late 1970’s, I had already read much of what Dr. King had written and was familiar with the nascent field of Black Theology through the writings of Dr. James Cone. Dr. King became one of my models of what it meant to be a preacher in late 20th century America. When I became a pastor, I used the annual remembrance of his birthday, January 15, as an occasion to preach a sermon about racism in America. While some of my parishioners appreciated my addressing that issue from the pulpit, others quietly resisted, and still others actively protested by walking out when I would stand up to preach. The resistance I experienced was negligible in relation to what Dr. King and those who followed him suffered. His final sermon, the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, inspires me to this day. A few years ago, I had the opportunity on a Civil Rights Bus tour to go to Memphis, and stand on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King breathed his last; that balcony is for me, as I suspect it is for many, holy ground. This year the nation has remembered that it was 50 years ago that while standing there, he was shot and died.
The second event that occurred in 1968 was the release in Portuguese of Paulo Freire’s seminal work, Pedagogy of Oppressed. In 1961 Freire had been hired as the Director of the Department of Cultural Extension at the University of Recife in northeastern Brazil. For almost two decades he had been working in various capacities organizing students and volunteers to go out into low-income communities teaching people basic literacy. In 1963 he was appointed by the president of Brazil to develop a nationwide literacy program designed to teach up to 2 million people how to read. However, before Freire could launch his program, the President of Brazil was overthrown by a coup consisting of military leaders, business elites, and conservative politicians. Freire was put in prison, then exiled to Bolivia, and eventually went to Chile, where he continued his literacy work in a much more hospitable and supportive environment. While in Chile he wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was his effort to explain the theories and concepts behind his unique understanding of teaching and learning. For Freire teaching was a political act, and so he saw his pedagogy as contributing to the growing resistance to the dictatorships that dominated Central and South American countries in the 1960’s.
Pedagogy of the Oppressed was translated into English in 1964, and after leaving Chile for Harvard University (where he was not well received), he moved to Geneva, Switzerland where he worked for the World Council Churches advising nations coming out from under colonialism how to develop education systems reflective of their native cultures and educational needs. In 1980, he was allowed to return to his native Brazil, where he led various educational endeavors and continued his work in various nations around the world.
I first encountered Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1981 while in my last semester of seminary. I was blown away by the clarity and power of his perspective on teaching, social change and the way the privileged must join forces with the oppressed in a struggle for liberation. However, there was no one around me who could help me translate what he was saying and apply it to an American urban context. I deeply regret this because I have since realized there were numerous opportunities I could have had in the early 1980’s to hear and speak with Freire personally had I understood him more. So, his powerful words and thought remained dormant in me, like seeds in winter waiting to bloom of spring
That blooming came during my doctoral program in 2000 where I was reintroduced to Freire, and this time his words made sense to me in a way that did not before. Pedagogy of the Oppressed has become a pedagogical guide that shapes and informs the way I understand teaching, leadership, the process of social change, and my spirituality. I have since had occasion to read all of Freire’s writings in English (at least that I can find), and have written several articles and a book (Paulo Freire: His Faith, Spirituality, and Theology; coauthored with Dr. James Kirylo) about him. And I have been privileged to meet many others who like me have been impacted by the life and writings of this humble teacher from Recife.
To my knowledge, even though Dr. King and Paulo Freire lived during the same tumultuous times in their respective countries, they never referred to each other in any of their writings or public speeches. They may have heard of each other, but there is no evidence that is the case. Yet in their own times and spaces, they challenged the forces of oppression grinding people down and dehumanizing them. Both men left a legacy that progressives around the world are still trying to live into and both suffered for their commitment to justice. Dr. King was only 39 when he was killed; Paulo was 46 years old when King died. Paulo died in 1997 at the age of 85; Dr. King would have been 78 at the time of Paulo’s death had he lived that long. One can only speculate that if circumstances had been different they could have become collaborators and friends in the struggle for justice around the world
All I know is that the lives of both of these men continue to affect me today. Dr. King helped me see the power of faith working for justice, the evils of racism in all its forms, and the power of persistent hope in the face of opposition, violence, and hatred. Paulo Freire showed me how to be a teacher, to value the lives and insights of my students, and embrace unwavering hope as praxis regardless of the opposition and difficulty of circumstances. Despite the fact that they are physically gone, they continue to teach and shape me, and for that, I am eternally grateful.