Why MLK Day Matters: A Question of Character

Those who've known me longest might remember that the only time I ever really "got in trouble" in high school was when I faced detention for having skipped school to attend a Martin Luther King Day march downtown Grand Rapids, after having asked permission to attend and been denied  (a detention, incidentally, which my friend and I managed to convert into community service by asking if we could "do our time" at a local soup kitchen instead of by sitting in an empty room after school).

This was a pivotal and founding moment of resistance for me, and had the bonus of drawing attention to the fact that our school didn't sufficiently acknowledge the impacts of Dr. King and the need to position his work in the present, not just the past. This was the late 80s, when the international pressure was finally starting to reveal cracks in US support for Apartheid South Africa, and this was a moment of awakening for me, as I began to realize that the institutional hypocrisy that my friends and I had long observed wasn't just a matter of "bias" or "prejudice:"  it was a matter of power.   And a matter of character.

As an idealistic and budding young activist without the vocabulary to fully express or understand it yet, this incident really opened my eyes to the limits of my "activism" within the narrow parameters of my privilege.  And I knew then as much as I know now that I would never be able to live with myself if I didn't live my life toward change.  This moment pushed me hard down a path I'd already started following, and moved me to read wider, dream bigger, and fight harder for what was right.     Next to Frantz Fanon, no one has influenced the way I think about our obligation to work for change more than Dr. King, and no American holds a higher place in my esteem.

Those who know me more recently know that the life I live today is lived largely and very consciously in pursuit of both social justice and the fulfillment of a dream that is yet to be fulfilled: that ALL will be judged "by the content of their character" and not the color of their skin.  All too often we over-simplify this serious charge.  Dr. King wasn't jsut saying "Don't be racist."  He was saying: Character is what really matters. And not just the character of others, but the character of ourselves.  This is the moral imperative: to define ourselves by doing what is right. This is the fundamental charge of Dr. King, and the fundamental charge of every major religion for that matter.  And if character is what really matters, then what option do we have but to do whatever we can live our lives to the greatest benefit of others? 

So MLK Day is my favorite holiday of the year for many, many reasons, but mostly these: (1) because it's a day in which we celebrate the legacy of a man whose radical morality made him an enemy of the state and the voice of a nation deeply in need of justice and (2) because I can't help but think of today as the anniversary of my own political awakening, and it's a reminder of the need to push on, stand strong, and continue to fight for what is right.

And what's right today is the same thing that was right in Dr. King's time: justice.

The fight for social justice today remains largely a fight against poverty.  The fight for equity and equality remains a fight against policies and practices that keep our schools segregated, our poorest kids at the bottom, and those who work the hardest and longest and struggle the most at the very bottom of the economic food chain.

Dr. King died fighting poverty, which he recognized as ground-zero of the civil rights struggle.  He died fighting for the radical belief that not only do we have the means and the moral imperative to eradicate poverty, but we have the moral imperative to ensure that every worker earns a living wage.  This is what building character, building citizenship, means to me.  It means we work together to do what's right. No matter what.

This is why our fight is a fight for public schools, why we fight to ensure that EVERY school is excellent instead of investing in a system where some schools are set up to fail while others profit off the "failures" of students already facing enough obstacles to their success.  This is why our fight is a fight against disparate and disproportionate treatment of minorities and low-income citizens by law enforcement and the criminal justice system. This is why our fight is a fight against unjust laws and policies that exploit workers, trample workers' rights, and reward businesses that underpay, outsource, and profit on the misfortune of the ever-growing underclass of low-wage workers.  So as we honor Dr. King's legacy today, let's not water-down this message, and let's not allow anyone to co-opt the power of this truth under an umbrella of "tolerance" or a feel-good appeal to "racial harmony."  Let's remember that to stand with Dr. King is to take a stand, strongly, against poverty and against a system that ensures and guarantees the oppression of others by privileging those who already benefit from so many privileges:

 "The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.

The curse of poverty has no justification in our age. It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not yet learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time has come for us to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."

- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

That is the charge.  We know we have the resources and the wealth needed to abolish poverty.  The question is how will we?  When will we? And will we have the courage to do so? 

I'll close a reminder that "the time is always right to do what's right,"  and my favorite quote from Dr. King: 

"Courage is an inner resolution to go forward despite obstacles.
Cowardice is submissive surrender to circumstances.
Courage breeds creativity; Cowardice represses fear and is mastered by it.
Cowardice asks the question, is it safe?
Expediency ask the question, is it politic?
Vanity asks the question, is it popular?

But, conscience ask the question, is it right? And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

 -   Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis preserve their neutrality."

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