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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Marchers walk past the AT&T building on M.L. King Boulevard during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The march was held in conjunction with a variety of other Martin Luther King Jr. Day events held throughout the day.

Twelve months ago, a group of 200 of us began a sort of liturgical and social experiment: We spent a year reading Martin Luther King Jr.

Sermons, essays, speeches. One per week for 52 weeks. (Well, minus the week or two I was late emailing them out.)

The idea originated in the winter of 2020. Thanks to the stalwart work of historian John Shearer, I'd learned that 60 years prior, King had come to Chattanooga — Dec. 30, 1960 — speaking to some 2,500 people at Memorial Auditorium.

He'd been originally scheduled to speak at Howard High, but the school board said no.

Would elected leaders refuse him again today?

One year ago, I wondered: What if we invited King back into our hearts and minds?

Some 200 readers — Black, white, conservative, liberal, politicians, teachers, poets and businesspeople — volunteered.

Every two weeks, I'd email sermon or essay links; now, our experiment has come to an end.

"Re-reading old sermons and speeches that I had known before and new ones like today have encouraged me to continue to press for equality by living conscious of the racism that clings to me and to Chattanooga," said the Rev. Carter Paden. "It is scary how contemporary and fresh and applicable Dr. King's words are today."

"A year of reading that has increased many-fold my respect, love for and awe of this remarkable man who affected and changed our country and the world — and continues to do so," said Barbara Seals.

Longtime, decorated educators Verbie and Hugh Prevost hosted regular Zoom discussions, where one theme frequently emerged.

"A desire to stop constantly blaming 'others' for racism and violence, to stop being defensive about our own personal responsibilities, and, above all, to become more proactive in finding ways, however small they may be, to reduce racism and violence in our world," Verbie Prevost said.

For me, two lessons seem most pressing.

First, the goodness of community. I am so very thankful for this group and its kindness, devotion and courage.

Second?

We need to stop pretending.

The nonviolent and prophetic King we encountered was radical and unapologetic, forever preaching about what he called the Triple Evils: racism, militarism and poverty.

— "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

— "There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society with a large segment of people in that society who feel they have no stake in it, who feel they have nothing to do ... Out of the heaving desperation surrounding their days, they often end up seeing life as a long and desperate corridor with no exit sign."

"If we are to solve the problem ultimately, the white person must see the Negro as his brother."

Yet each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, our nation seems to overlook his radicalism and instead diminishes him to the patron saint of community service and mountaintop aphorisms.

Yes, King loved service — thank you to all who are organizing service events this week — but community service did not make him an enemy of the state or haunted by the FBI. Community service did not get him barred from speaking at Howard. Community service did not get him assassinated.

Let us serve our community, but let us do so as "maladjusted" Chattanoogans.

"There are some things in our nation and the world to which I am proud to be maladjusted and wish all men of goodwill would be maladjusted until the good society is realized," King said. "I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to a religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few, leaving millions of people smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence."

This week, the Unity Group offers its 52nd annual MLK Celebration week, giving us an opportunity for renewed maladjustment. All events are virtual; Zoom links can be found at timesfreepress.com/mlk2022.

Sunday night, Ken Chilton will speak about economic forces that have displaced Black Chattanoogans.

There will be presentations on voting, the courts, COVID-19 and community safety.

Friday, the Rev. Charlotte Williams will host Lorenzo Ervin, a native and once-exiled Chattanoogan and former Black Panther Party member.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the annual parade has been replaced with a Beloved Community gathering at Miller Park at 1 p.m.

***

In the Kingian spirit of empathy, the Pop-Up Project and WTCI PBS will present a full-length film Wednesday, Jan. 12. "The Light We Share." Premiering at 7 p.m. at the Tivoli Theater, the film is billed as an art-filled exploration that "examines the struggles and triumphs of everyday lives while enforcing the values of empathy and human connection."

The $15 tickets are on sale through the Tivoli or Ticketmaster.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / From left, Markisha Locklin, 6, Tasha Rowe and Malachi Locklin, 4, walk in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day march Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Rowe said the three had never been to the march before, but chose to because she wanted to teach the two kids the history behind Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
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