Wow . . . We really are out of touch with the message and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The week before the national holiday that honors the man, a Pentagon official suggested that though he spoke out openly against the war in Vietnam, calling it “dishonorable and unjust,” Dr. King would actually support the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wow? Really? One of the harshest critics of the war in Vietnam and a clear pacifist would somehow support two wars of aggression in foreign lands? Huh.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. day, I came across an article by one of my favorite authors, Tim Wise, entitled, “We Twisted King’s Dream, so We Live with His Nightmare.” In the article, Wise uses poignant examples from King’s life and from our current social and political realities to come to the following conclusion:
“In short, by not understanding the fundamental truth of King’s message that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, we have created a society, 43 years since his death, where injustice and suffering are rampant. And one in which the dreams of the civil rights movement appear the fantastical products of some Ambien-induced haze. Only by putting away, forever, the safe and sanitized version of this man and his compatriots, might we ever awaken from the stupor and become worthy of that which we celebrate this week.”
Undoubtedly, as Jay Smooth of IllDoctrine points out in his readings of Dr. King quotes, King was no moderate who simply wanted a “Kumbaya” notion of racial justice. No, no . . . his call to us was one far more radical than that.
Sure, a day of service is a fantastic way to remember the man, the movement of which he was a part, and his service, but undoubtedly remembering him for a day misses the mark. In thinking over Wise’s piece and quotes like the ones above, I can’t help but think of a question I have gotten in many forms from people all over the country. “Why considering all of the work we’ve done toward equal rights? Why considering all of the civil rights legislation? Why considering all of the work of individuals working for justice? Why have we not been able to overcome the realities of injustice and inequality in this country?” In essence, “Why haven’t we been able to realize Dr. King’s Dream?”
My answer? Our problem is a problem of change from within. We can pass all the laws we like. We can march until our legs give out from beneath us. We can call for justice until we are blue in the face. Until we are willing to work within ourselves to realize King’s Dream, to realize justice, to realize a world of equity, we shall see no great change.
We change the voting laws, but it is still people who must enforce the law or change the structures so that the law is no longer needed. We can change corporate policy, but it is still people that must work to hire and promote in equitable ways. To see equity, laws and regulations and policies are incredibly important, but compared to what is needed, passing laws is only one, relatively-easy step. Our society has failed to realize the vision of Dr. King because we are unwilling to do the incredibly difficult work to look within ourselves and see how we perpetuate inequality every single day.
It is our prejudices that ensures that black voters are disproportionately disenfranchised. It is our prejudices that ensure that ensure that a person with a white-sounding name is 50% more likely to get a call back for a job interview than someone with a black-sounding name – essentially proving that simple prejudice plays a definitive role in black unemployment being twice that of white unemployment (and you find similar realities for Latinos).
There is only so much that laws and regulations can accomplish when we live in a perpetual state of racial and cultural amnesia where we refuse to remember and deal with our racial histories and current racial realities. It is time for us to wake up, to become cognizant, to realize that we must be the change if we ever hope to realize Dr. King’s Dream. We must change ourselves, realize our own struggles with race and racism and work to overcome them, if we ever hope to see structural change. Realizing our struggles allows us to reach out across difference and build accountable relationships. Realizing our struggles allows us to have agency over the ways in which we perpetuate racism. Realizing our struggles, in a sense, is the first step in pulling the rug out from under the systems of inequality.
Eventually “water drips through stone,” but hundreds of years of violent racial history says that the water can’t drip fast enough. We must be the torrent of water that moves boulders – nay, considering the size of our racial wounds, moves mountains, and we must let “justice run down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”