“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.”
I’d originally started this post as a list of facts about the great MLK Jr, and decided about halfway through to scratch that and instead write about what this day means to me.
King would have been 91 this year had he not been assassinated, but as a nation, we recognize his birthday on the third Monday of every January. Now as long as I’ve been alive I’ve never had to work or go to school on this day, but this holiday hasn’t always been a federal one. President Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, but it was another 3 years before it was recognized. And even then there were still states (primarily Southern ones) that refused to give Dr. King the rightful holiday, pairing it with Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s birthday (I’m looking at you Virginia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama). I want to say that I’m shocked at how disrespectful some people can be, but in this day in age, I’m not.
It took some rallies, a few million signatures, and a hit song by Stevie Wonder to get the petition in front of the right people, and now instead of students going to school and some people going to work they take the day and give back to their community. When I was growing up that meant volunteering at local women and children centers or helping out at the food bank, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that there are more ways for me to give back. Today’s form of volunteering will be in the form of educating people.
Dr. King was touted as the antithesis of Malcolm X, docile and non-violent but I don’t think they were that different. They both called for change, and for some reason, the general public is under the assumption that Dr. King was the sit and wait for everything to fall into his lap. Well according to his letter from the Birmingham jail said the exact opposite.
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” It has been a tranquilizing thalidomide, relieving the emotional stress for a moment, only to give birth to an ill-formed infant of frustration. We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights.”
At the time he was fighting for the equal rights of African-Americans, but I feel like you can swap out “Negro” with “minority” and that would still ring true. We as a society are tired of being told to wait, that police brutality, profiling, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc will eventually end. We’re told that protesting peacefully is wrong, that sitting in is wrong, that kneeling in silent protest is wrong; it’s like no matter how we choose to exercise our constitutional rights we’re wrong. One of my favorite lines from that letter is, “I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait”. We may not be facing segregation now, but the rest of that sentence is true. Those who have never felt the stinging darts of oppression, a glass ceiling, prejudice, and sexual assault/harassment, etc are easily able to tell those who have to “wait”. Well, I’m tired of waiting, and you guys should be too. Common said it best in his Oscar-winning song “Glory”, “Selma is now”. No more waiting, no more saying “it’s just 4 years, we can stick it out”, no more standing by idly while the local representatives we elected continue not to properly represent us.
Oh and don’t get me started on sticking with societal norms because it’s the law or it’s the way things have always been. Now I’m not saying go out and break the law, but I think that Dr. King put it best when he defined just and unjust laws.
“An unjust law is a code that a majority inflicts on a minority that is not binding on itself. This is difference made legal. On the other hand, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow, and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.”
That’s pretty straight-forward, right? I think so. This letter was written in August 1963, but I’m seeing so many parallels between then and now. With the constant talk on bringing backstop and frisk, repealing ACA and defunding Planned Parenthood it sounds to me like some unjust laws.
People often post Dr. King’s “only way to drive out hate is love” quote, but remember that love is an action word. It’s not just something you say, but what we do to show that love. It means not only having those difficult talks (breaking the glass ceiling, women’s reproductive rights, immigration, cultural and religious differences, etc), but taking it a step forward and participating in demonstrations, marches, town halls and even contacting your local reps to make sure that they’re properly representing their constituents.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Be the change you’re looking for, don’t just sit and complain thinking that nothing can be changed because that’s just how it’s always been.