This is a week to reflect on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the history of nonviolent protest, and the impact of the civil rights movement on our national character. It also is a week where we look towards a fairly dramatic change of government; no better time to consider messages of resistance, urgency, and inspiration.
But I am having a little trouble finding the right frame to make my comments meaningful. Saying that Dr. King was a visionary leader whose words compel us to fight injustice is like saying a rose is beautiful or that cool water quenches thirst on a hot day. These things are known and so familiar as to almost be mundane. Writing what should be an uplifting post has started to feel like telling people they should eat kale. As we all know, kale is not edible unless it’s deep-fried and covered in Cheetos dust. I would not want to have to cover the “I have a dream” speech in Cheetos dust.
If everyone likes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, does that mean I agree with the ideas of everyone who says so? Politicians from all sides of the spectrum have issued positive press releases lauding Dr. King. Does that mean I agree with all of them? Or, if I say that Dr. King’s ideas are revolutionary because they apply to everyone fighting against injustice, does that mean I am minimizing the work he did to advance the destruction of racist institutions? I am worried about pandering; I am worried about offending.
Great ideas are not a static aesthetic. We can enshrine beautiful words with art and with celebration, but that doesn’t mean we have to entomb them. I used to work across the street from the MLK Fountain at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco; I never tired of walking over there for lunch and seeing his words on the walls. But what makes them so meaningful is not that they are nice words on the walls but that we can still apply them. I also seem to hear Dr. King saying that I must not worry about offending, or I will never speak.
So, at the risk of saying the obvious, let me point out first that we are all minorities. I am a minority. I am old, fat, lesbian, above-average perhaps in intelligence, but below-average in allure. I live in California, where no racial ancestry claims a majority anymore. As a woman, I may represent 51% of the population, but I am well aware that does not reflect 51% of the power. You can play this game, too. We feel under-represented; our voices are not heard. We just had a national election and everyone seems to have come out of it feeling that their voices were not heard. The clarity comes with the realization that we are all under-represented and we can all respond by demanding to be treated with dignity and respect.
Dr. King and those who marched with him in the 1950s and 1960s were successful in striking down segregation to improve the lives of African-Americans. But civil rights means the rights of citizens to social and political freedom and equality, not just based on race, but across the spectrum. This is why his ideas are appealing and launched other movements that also achieved greater political equality for other groups which represent different facets of the minorities that we are.
I was particularly struck by this in a lesser-quoted part of the famous speech. As only I might notice, here is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Banker, giving rise to inspiration through financial imagery:
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check — a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
As the message on ending racial inequality became adopted more broadly, King spoke out increasingly on other issues. He was stridently anti-war. He became concerned about ecology and overpopulation. In 1968 when he was assassinated, he was heavily involved planning what has been called a second phase of the civil rights movement, the Poor People’s March as part of a campaign to reduce poverty. He would scoff at the notion that identity politics and class politics are somehow either/or choices and would point out that those in power would use whatever means they had to divide and conquer.
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”
Not everyone has the same issues to be resolved. Not everyone has the same concerns to be protested. Some want better or at a minimum the same access to healthcare. Some want to reduce violence against women. Some want to combat the threats to our environment. Some want the right to worship in peace. We’re not going to agree on what is the most urgent issue, and there will be arguments about priorities. But the one thing we know with clarity – also part of Dr. King’s message – is that our priorities will not be included unless we are heard and with a sense of urgency.
Yet even with that sense of urgency, we should remind ourselves that the core message is inspiration and not fear. Again, this seems like calling a rose red, but now more than ever needs focus. This political season has immersed us in a sense of constant outrage – if not at highly publicized tweets then with each others’ reaction to them. Regardless of the source – it may in fact be linked to cynical election and news policies that go back decades – but regardless of the source, we cannot allow our energy to be squandered through fear and outrage.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
This is a time where fear and outrage keep trying to distract us. This is a false way of directing our sense of urgency. We are consumed with each other – people who didn’t vote the way we did or disagree on the policy solutions. We are letting our advertising-driven communication institutions, aka the media, turn discussions about the best way forward into gossip columns.
At heart, Dr. King is most remembered as a dreamer so at heart the way to live through his legacy is to be inspired. I would close by sharing another speech that has always inspired me. This one is from a character on a TV show who I like to think of as Dr. King, if he had lived in the 23rd century on a space station out among planets full of bickering aliens.* The notion of a Universal Truth becomes, well, truly universal.
The universe speaks in many languages but only one voice. It speaks in the language of hope. It speaks in the language of trust. It speaks in the language of strength and the language of compassion. It is the language of the heart and the language of the soul… gathered together in common cause we agree to recognize this singular truth and this singular rule: that we must be kind to one another. Because each voice enriches us and ennobles us, and each voice lost, diminishes us.
In the next few days, there will be many speeches and many gatherings. They will speak in many directions about many ideas and demands. It will be noisy and messy and in some ways a great celebration of our democracy. If we take part, even in resistance we can be joyful and take on the struggle with laughter replacing outrage. With that “fierce urgency of now” as Dr. King called it, there is no better time to participate. Because, ultimately, resistance is not futile.