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.

The Land of Opportunity?

We all know them.  The stereotypical, cliché sayings about America.  Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, The Great Melting Pot, A Land of Opportunity.  These sayings stir national pride in most Americans.  However, are these just old, crazy sayings that we say in order to hearken back to some bygone age of glory and nationalistic fervor? Is America really a place where an individual can come and be free?  Do we really cherish the sacrifices made by our heroes, here and abroad?  Does America really embrace diversity?  Do we as a nation celebrate each other for our differences?  Is America the place that provides equal opportunity for its citizens to succeed?  I think that these are very valid questions, not only for the nation as a whole, but for us personally.  I want to beg you not to misread me here.  I am not saying that I hold disdain for the many freedoms that I have under the Constitution.  Moreover, I am definitely not saying that I do not appreciate the sacrifice that thousands of men and women make daily so that I can enjoy these freedoms. I’m simply asking questions about how America really works.

Now, through the process of reaching my dream of making it big (in social work) (sarcasm), I have constantly been challenged to think on these questions.  Social Justice is one of the main Social Work Core Values.  Thus, in relation to this post I am rather biased on this hot button issue for myself, because I think that this is an important issue that should be talked about on all levels.

America.  This brings up a lot of different things for a lot of different people.  Should it ever be thought of as cruel, oppressive, or unfair?  I personally don’t think so.  Personally, I think that America should be thought of as a beautiful country, one that provides a level ground for individuals looking to better themselves.  A place that one can come to and find security and refuge from any circumstance.  It should be thought of as a country that takes care of its own.

Henry Kissinger recently posted something online that was in the same vein of things I have seen popping up all over social media.  These posts have been addressing our current Welfare system and how, in essence, they are sick and tired of having to pay for “takers”, individuals who use the system to support themselves when they are fully capable of getting a job.  This is such a fascinating perspective.  The assumptions that fuel this line of thinking are mostly based on personal experiences.  Whether these are people that we know/heard of that “use” the system, or simply just our life experiences and how we have seen life work.  Usually I would be like, “hey that’s your opinion and that’s cool,” but it really isn’t.  Webster defines greed as “the selfish desire to have more of something (usually money)”. People don’t like the “takers” because it’s their thought that they are having their money, time, or whatever, taken from them just for people to leech off the system. I do not think that this is an inherently bad quality to have the ambition or hunger for more, but it definitely is a slippery slope to desire things for personal gain at the expense of others. (In broad historical scopes, see Jackson and the Cherokee, Napoleon, Hitler, Cortez, Escobar, etc.)

As a white, middle class, male who lives in a suburban/rural area, my life has been pretty easy.  There was nothing really standing in my way of the things that I wanted to do with my life.  Even when I was in middle school, college was just a given.  That is what you do after high school.  And when we take a look at my primary and secondary education it was pretty darn good.  The teachers were all well-trained and we had fantastic learning materials: new books, mobile laptop carts, Smart boards with projectors in almost every classroom.  I mean our school was decked out with some pretty sweet things that made learning fun and interesting.  The staff of the school was fantastic, really loved doing their jobs and had a passion for the students.  This education really prepared me for what I would experience when I eventually attended college.  If this was the same across the board for every American, then yes Henry, it would be unfair for you to pay to support those who have had the same amount of chances as you, in similar circumstances.  Unfortunately for everyone, this is not even close to reality.

The fact of the matter is that we all know of schools where we would never want to send our kids, neighborhoods in which we would never want to drive through, let alone live in.  And we all know the “kind of people who live in those neighborhoods, and go to those schools.  And they deserve it, don’t they?  If they would only get a job, then they could move out to the suburbs, and then their kids could go to better schools.  And then I could finally stop paying for their housing, food, health insurance, addiction, etc.  Since they do not contribute, then they should bear the full weight of their incompetence, why should we that work, and work hard, pay for their laziness or petty wants?  If they actually wanted to be contributing members of society, then they should have their basic rights to survival, correct?

I want to take us back to the questions in the beginning, is everyone starting from the same place?  Let me set it up for us.  You live in the city, and we aren’t talking Upper Manhattan here. For those of you Susquehanna Valley’ers, think Reading or Altoona or Allison Hill in Harrisburg.  You have been born into a family without money.  So naturally your apartment complex or project is not adequate for your, or anyone’s needs.  Over-crowded, poor maintenance, “bad part of the neighborhood”, the odds are stacked against you.  Your mom works two minimum wage jobs in order to support your family, because your dad walked out on your family before you were born.  Your mother also had to drop out of high school when she was pregnant with your older sibling, thus limiting her potential job opportunities.  Even though she works two jobs it is still not enough to pay for everything, so you have to stand in a different line than your friends in school for your lunch.  Because your mom does not have time, you have never applied for a Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP).  So, when you get sick you don’t go to the doctor and have to miss extra days of school.  Because of your tardiness, due to lack of transportation, and persistent inability to focus, you are tracked as needed extra support.  As a result of this you then are separated from your friends in school because you have to attend special programs and classes, so that your school does not lose their already scarce funding.  Little does the school know, your lack of attention in class is a result of never having enough to eat.  The embarrassment of being the “poor kid” that gets the “unfair” free lunch is too much for you, your friends mean the world to you.  The school is so concerned about test scores and funding because they are already working with textbooks that are over 10 years old and in poor condition, and their class sizes average 40 or more students.  The teachers are usually either right out of college or those that other schools do not want, so dealing with “problem children” is usually not high on their priority list.  (There are still some great teachers that work in inner-city school districts) Because of your age and wanting to fit in, you begin rebelling as you grow up.  You get mixed up in the “wrong crowd” and your school work suffers even more.  Your home life is as volatile as ever.  Your mother is doing what she can but she is not around enough to really be a contributing part of your life and your older sibling wants nothing to do with you because you are not cool enough to hang out with them.  As a result you begin to look for love in other places.  Because of your ignorance regarding safe sex and inability to obtain contraceptive devices, you start a family as a teenager.  Rinse and Repeat the whole process.  Is this your fault?  Really?

I know what you’re thinking, and you’re not wrong.  This is a completely fabricated story and there are a lot of things that might not be true, as this point is only made for the sake of argument.  But there are a lot things that are more common than we think.  And the bottom line is when we see someone, do we ever really know what they have had to deal with to be in the place that they are.  The answer is no.  This story is an example of how it may be out of someone’s control, or capability to really and truly “pull themselves up by their boot straps.”

This brings me full circle.  Do any of us pull ourselves up by the boot straps?  I mean the only person that I can think of that truly did this would be like, Abe Lincoln, who wasn’t as underprivileged growing up as we are led to believe, and he was still white.  The rest of us receive immense help from the government.  Public Schools, tax breaks, subsidies for big business, banking and SEC regulations, etc.  Does that mean that because you were born into a certain family, you are better than others?  Is that what it comes down to?  Because your family makes more money, you’re a better person?  Because your school was funded properly, you get to judge?  Because you have white skin, you get to discriminate?  Because you were given what you need to succeed, you can expect success from those who weren’t?  I think that we need to check ourselves as a nation. We need to think to ourselves, have I really thought about, researched, or talked to anyone who has had a different experience in life than I have?  What if the tables were turned, would I want to be judged and discriminated against for things that are outside of my control? How can I really know how I would react in the same scenario without actually being placed in it?

Talk to your friends about this.  Talk to people who think different from you about this.  Talk to everyone about this.  Think about these things, and keep an open mind. Because someone else has had a different experience and opinion than you, doesn’t mean you should slam the door shut on them. To wrap up, how do we make America the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,  a true and celebrated Melting Pot,  a place where everyone can experience the Land of Opportunity? I personally don’t have the answer to this, but through open-minded dialogue and taking appropriate action, I think we can strive toward this perceived goal.