Monday, January 16, 2006

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is the day we celebrate the life and vision of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Since my day job is in civil rights, I feel obligated to post a few words. We'll see where this takes us.

As I will explain in a future post, my political awakening occurred during the presidential campaign of 1988. I was 16, not able to vote, but definitely interested in seriously following politics for the first time. Besides the presidential election, though, 1988 was the 20th anniversary of the assassination of MLK and RFK, and the 25th anniversary of JFK's assassination. Accordingly there were a number of television specials and retrospectives on those 3 men, and the '60s in general. I probably watched every single one.

Learning about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement helped shape my view of the world, my sense of justice, and my politics. It had such a profound impact on me that I went on to write my college thesis (scroll to the bottom) on the Civil Rights Movement, and ultimately went to Howard University, the birthplace of the NAACP's anti-segregation strategy culminating with Brown v. Board of Education, for law school. Today I work for a civil rights organization that strives to make our world one where Dr. King's "Dream" can be realized:
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

There is still so much work to be done before Dr. King's dream can remotely be considered a reality. To be sure, much progress has been made on many fronts. But there are many areas where we are hardly any better off today than we were 43 years ago when Dr. King uttered those words. Sadly hatred, bigotry and ignorance still plague us. This fact was brought home to me with a sledgehammer when I learned that one, if not more, website designed to provide Katrina refugees with information about housing opportunities listed several posts that said "whites only."

This was in 2005, shortly after the worst natural disaster to hit our country in modern times had left thousands homeless. When I first saw these "ads" I was speechless. Even today I cannot fully get my head around how people, on the one hand, could be so compassionate as to open their door to strangers, but on the other hand be so blatant about their bigotry.

Discoveries like this make me realize just how far we still have to go. I don't mean to suggest that I'm naive about bigotry, but one of the "victories" of the Civil Rights Movement was to make it disreputable to give public voice to such beliefs and feelings. Clearly that is an assumption I can no longer make without pause.

Still, on days like that, when I realize the full enormity of the task before us, I am reminded of the following: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm not about to wade into the quote attribution except to say that the exact quote is attributed to Dr. King, but if you'll follow the link you'll see he was paraphrasing Theodore Parker, an abolistionist minister.

It is this concept, regardless of who said it, that gives me solace and hope. But I think this idea cannot be considered by itself. It must be considered in conjunction with admonishment from Dr. King:
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. (Emphasis added).
Put another way, justice is ours if we're willing to work for it. So on this holiday honoring a true American hero I encourage you all to reflect upon what part you are playing in the struggle. Take a breather if you'd like. Just be ready to gear up and fight on. But take comfort in the fact that you are not alone.


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