The Martin Luther King Legacy: More Than a Monday in January?

I am not a holiday person. Christmas is religious only in its lustful devotion of consumer materialism. July 4th is weighed down by ignorant patriotism and distracted by fireworks displays. Valentine’s Day is usually disappointing no ¬†matter what your relationship status is. Columbus Day is an atrocity (We still call Native Americans Indians. See Louis C.K. stand-up). Anyway, holidays are hollow. As I talked to people yesterday and today concerning this holiday, Martin Luther King Day, I got some pretty surprising reactions. “Why is this a holiday?” “He accomplished what someone else would have.” “This doesn’t deserve to be a Federal holiday.” Cue the about face for me, the holiday hater. Jesus Christ, of all of the stupid things we celebrate, this day has some potential. How can we appreciate what MLK went through? How can we honor his legacy?

I like the general skepticism when it comes to anointing Dr. King as the second coming, but he was this country’s most successful social activist in the past half-century. But, we all know his accomplishments and his trials and tribulations along the way. After today, I’ve become more interested in his legacy and how we have seemingly taken his persona and made it into a universal truth. I think this is dangerous. Before the Civil Rights movement, realities that we can’t imagine were the norm. It is hard to fathom what it truly took to break down those pillars of injustice and restore a foundation of liberty and tolerance. It seems as though many people are sick of MLK posthumously getting so much credit, but his experience was far from ordinary. He was a revolutionary and died for his cause. Viewing his legacy in a vacuum with a defined start and end point undermines the fight he waged. Civil Rights and the broader cause of battling social injustice is an eternal struggle. We cannot rest on our laurels and assume that his fight ended in victory.

King said, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” That is his legacy. “America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.¬†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.” Since that monumental speech echoed off of the Washington monument, more oppressed people have arrived in Washington to cash checks of equality and justice and the funds are still very much insufficient. We have come a long way in terms of civil rights for African Americans and others, but each instance of hate and persecuted group should not require the effort and struggle given by Dr. King. We should not live as Americans waiting on the next hero to accomplish King’s goal of a world where people are judged solely on the content of their character.. We are the silent, but good people who should be appalled by our own inaction.

Gay rights, poverty, declining education systems, hostility toward immigrants, residual racism, and other issues plague our brothers and sisters and we tend to seek comfort in our ignorance and insulation. I am heterosexual and can get married, not because I made a choice but because I was born into a majority, so I don’t care that, because others fall in a minority by also not making a choice, I should allow bigots to make a choice to restrict their liberty? I accept that fewer people in this country get richer while the overwhelming majority gets poorer? I accept that because I can afford to live in an area with high property values, my kids will get an adequate education and the children in the neighboring city will go without textbooks? I pretend that my immigrant heritage is any different from someone who cannot speak English? I accept that Civil Rights laws were passed so racism must also have ended? Our world is full of social injustice and we discuss it constantly, but we do so in whispers. We don’t make enough noise to drown out the disharmonious tones of prejudice and hate. We are so busy feeling sorry for ourselves that we forget that others aren’t asking us to feel sorry for them, but merely to stand in unity and fight for their just cause.

I think it’s all very simple. Live your life with the desire to make the world a better place than you found it. Nothing else really matters. As Dr. King so aptly stated, “And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” There are many checks to be cashed and there is plenty of money in the bank of social justice in order to make the world a better place. But, we cannot be afraid to cash in on what is right and true. We cannot wait for a leader to inspire us to fight, because that leader already did so and that is what we should take from today. Martin Luther King’s legacy is not about not getting mail one Monday in January or even necessarily about just civil rights for people of different races, but it is about recognizing and defeating injustice. Right now is the time and plenty is the cause. Whether it’s marching, voting, speaking, or listening, we cannot be docile in this battle anymore because our brothers, sisters, and forefathers can’t afford to suffer the tranquilizing effects of gradualism.

Advertisements