What Would King Say… Today?

MLK Day came and went this year without a lot of acknowledgement in the media. That’s understandable; there weren’t local events with keynote speakers from the Civil Rights Movement to report on. There weren’t in-person volunteer activities or candlelight vigils. It was a holiday, but like most MLK Days, I was scheduled to work, because I work in retail, and retail stops for no social justice cause. Normally, I manage to get out to a sermon or other event. Last year, I handed out scarves and hand warmers to homeless people. But not this year. This year is obviously different from all other years. This is the year (and I consider us to still be in at least the coda of 2020) of fear and death, hate and violence, turning inward and self-preservation.

If we didn’t really celebrate MLK Day this year, we can at least ponder what MLK would say about these times. Would his message be the same as the white-washed, watered down construction that we usually hear on MLK Day? That he led the country to freedom and equality and we should continue his mission by giving back to the community through charitable endeavors? There’s nothing terrible about that message, but I think he would be a more on point. He would have something a bit stronger to say about how to navigate and participate in our current world.

We can interpolate what Dr. King might have to say today by what he said at other times of White Supremacist violence, anti-democratic movements and natural or human-triggered disasters.

We must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for White Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over Black Americans.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., May 10, 1967 in Atlanta

What of the devastation brought by the pandemic and the response morally required by the government? Did Dr. King think that government bore no responsibility? To the contrary, MLK thought that it was government’s role to ensure that the poor were protected and uplifted so that they could be free to achieve their full human potential:

We would place the problems of the poor at the seat of government of the wealthiest nation in the history of mankind. If that power refused to acknowledge its debt to the poor, it would have failed to live up to its promise to insure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to its citizens. If this society fails, I fear that we will hear very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.

— The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King believed in the promise of democracy and in our democratic institutions. He lobbied and met with Presidents, and he supported the NAACP in bringing cases to the Supreme Court, including the seminal Montgomery Bus Boycott. Not only would he have been horrified by the Jan. 6th right-wing mob attack on the Capital, he would have condemned the passivity of the people in power who allowed it to happen through indifference or collusion. In his book Strength to Love, King said:

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.

We are surely living in a time of challenge and controversy. King is challenging us to work right now for social justice, even as the Black Lives Matter movement has lost support among erstwhile White allies. He is challenging us to prevent the government from using the threat of a right-wing insurrection to over-reach and institute new police state powers that historically have been used against people of color. And perhaps most challenging for us, he is urging us not to seek revenge when we seek justice:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love

King’s direct action — the protests and civil disobedience of the 1950s and 60s — exposed racism and inequality, bringing society’s ugly truths to the surface where they could no longer be ignored by the masses of comfortable people. Similarly, the pandemic and the disparate responses of police to Black social justice protesters and White insurrectionists has exposed vast inequalities to the world. Our racist and broken healthcare system is on full display, the shameful disparities in resources afforded to public education based on race, ethnicity and poverty are glaring for all to see.

The crises of our times have churned up and revealed deep, endemic flaws in our society, and this is the moment — the opportunity — that King would have us seize to dramatically change the world and bring us closer to the Beloved Community that he envisioned for all of humanity.




Essays, stories & poetry about OCD, culture and society, by Eric

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Essays, stories & poetry about OCD, culture and society, by Eric

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