Racism — January 14, 2016 at 8:51 am

Martin L. King, Jr.’s lesson (and challenge) for moral activists on the 30th anniversary of the MLK Day holiday


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Martin Luther King, Jr. was introduced to the world at age 26. Four days after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to move to the back of the bus, he spoke up at a meeting of civil rights leaders. In that meeting, King said, “When the history books are written in the future, somebody will have to say there lived a race of people who had the moral courage to stand up for their rights. And thereby they injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization.”

For 12 years and 4 months, he played a crucial role in transforming a local boycott into a social justice movement of international significance.

Following the Browder v. Gayle Supreme Court decision, which upheld a District Court’s ruling and ordered the state of Alabama (and Montgomery) to desegregate its buses, Dr. King talked about his vision of Beloved Community. He said that, although they’d won a legal victory, their victory was incomplete and the movement they were building needed to continue. He said their work would not end until there is reconciliation and redemption, when enemies become friends, when goodwill transforms gloom into gladness. The end, he said, is Beloved Community, where poverty, hunger, and homelessness are not tolerated. Racism, prejudice, and bigotry are replaced with sisterhood and brotherhood. Peace and Justice prevail over war and conflict.

In Dr. King’s view, the only way to achieve Beloved Community is to transform the system, and to confront oppression wherever it appears. He said that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but it comes through continuous struggle.”

It’s worth remembering that Dr. King was not popular at the time of his assassination. The final Gallup poll of Dr. King’s popularity in 1966 showed that 63% of Americans held negative views of him. One could probably guess that the numbers continued to decline over the next 2 years as he brought the Civil Rights Movement to northern cities to address poverty, slums, housing segregation, and bank lending discrimination and as he linked the fight for civil rights in America to the fight for human rights across the globe, including his opposition to militarism and the war in Vietnam.

In 2016, we celebrate the timeless wisdom of Dr. King, but in the 1950s and 1960s, his friends and foes mocked him and called him a radical. And to that he said, “When you are right, you cannot be too radical.”

When his fellow clergymen posted an op-ed in the Montgomery newspaper and called him an extremist, he answered back, “Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter, I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label.” He then compared himself to Jesus, Amos, Paul, Martin Luther, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln. Then he asked “So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be? Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

He did not shy away from being mocked nor did he run away from the labels extremist or radical, he embraced them, and no matter what challenges he faced, he kept saying what he knew to be true.

He was arrested 30 times, he was stabbed so close to the heart that the doctor told him that if he had sneezed he would have died, he was beaten, he was stoned, the Klu Klux Klan burned crosses on his lawn, he faced death threats, was threatened by the FBI, was wiretapped and spied on, and he kept speaking out against injustice until he was forced to stop by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968.

One of the most important lessons that Dr. King leaves us with is that what is important must be spoken, made verbal, and shared even at the risk of losing friends, being mocked, or called names.

On the 30th anniversary of the Martin L. King, Jr. holiday, let’s challenge ourselves to embody Dr. King’s vision. Our current political rhetoric has reached a dangerous, toxic level and we have seen an increase of citizen-on-citizen, politically-motivated violence and hate speech. If we are really committed to honoring his legacy, we must all speak against Islamophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, no matter where we see or hear it. Some may say that King didn’t talk about all of these issues. That is probably true, but he DID say, “Justice is indivisible.”

Speaking up may be uncomfortable and may require a level of personal sacrifice, but it is time to overcome your fears. Dr. King said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Speaking up may mean that you lose friends on Facebook; your colleagues might think you are too politically correct and can’t take a joke; your neighbors may refuse to let their kids come over to play; or family members may stop inviting you to holiday dinners because you are no longer “fun”.

But, if the history books, written in the future, are to say there lived a society of people who had the moral courage to stand up for what is right, and thereby injected a new meaning into the veins of history and civilization, your silence is no longer an option.

[Photo credit: Anne C. Savage, special to Eclectablog]