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From the Archives: Martin Luther King, Jr., His Legacy, and Why This Holiday Matters

“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.” – From Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Proper Sense of Priorities” February 1968 Speech

Obviously, there’s been a lot going on during these first few days of the new decade. But as we commemorate another MLK Day, let’s reflect on why this is a holiday, what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., actually stood for, where we as a society stand now, and how much further we must go to achieve that more perfect union.

FYI, we first ran the original version of this story on January 18, 2019. Yes, I know it’s only been a year, but we need a fresh reminder of why today matters.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. […] I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” 
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” address on April 3, 1968
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lectern.jpg
Photo provided by the Library of Congress, and made available by Wikimedia

We can scour through Dr. King’s many writings for plenty of truly awesome quotes, but let’s remember the reason why he wrote all those books, letters, and speeches in the first place. He spent his early years working to end the worst of Jim Crow (de jure) segregation through nonviolent resistance, then expanded his focus during his later years to broader themes of racial and economic justice.

During his life, Dr. King was actually condemned by many “mainstream” politicians and pundits for his opposition to the Vietnam War and his leadership of the Poor People’s Campaign. In fact, his final organizing trip was to Memphis to publicly throw his support behind the African-American city sanitation workers who were demanding equal pay and better working conditions. 

We sometimes hear various snippets of Dr. King’s final “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Address on the day before his assassination, but we must keep in mind the overarching message of going beyond de jure segregation in tackling the de facto segregation that exists in the forms of institutionalized racism and systemic poverty.

“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.” 
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Strength to Love, 1963
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Photo by Yoichi Okamoto, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum and Wikimedia

These days, it’s easy for us to comfort ourselves with the thought that Dr. King achieved his dream of justice with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s much harder to confront the much more complicated reality of Jim Crow-style de jure segregation being replaced by a new de facto segregation that’s hidden in our criminal justice system, our education system, the fine print of statistics on economic inequality, and even the still incomplete non-discrimination laws that allow for all sorts of discrimination against women, communities of color, and LGBTQ+ Americans.

Even now, we’re witnessing this enduring inequality with the current (partial federal) government shutdown. While Americans are starting to notice that certain 1950’s-60’s civil rights movement monuments will be closed this weekend due to the shutdown, the impact stretches much further than that. Whether it’s the low-wage contractors who have already been going without pay to the working poor families who may soon lose SNAP benefits, we can see who’s disproportionately being hit by President Donald Trump’s shutdown shitshow. And considering the shutdown is the direct result of Trump’s insistence on a border wall to effectively fortify his discriminatory “zero tolerance” anti-immigrant regime, that adds an additional layer to the institutionalized discrimination that continues to plague our country.

So as we remember Dr. King and his legacy, it’s critical that we remember his full legacy… And that there’s still far more for us to do to truly honor his legacy. As Dr. King wrote himself in his 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 

Postscript: Just how close have we come to achieving MLK’s dream?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Since we first had this conversation a year ago, much has changed… And much more hasn’t. Less than three months after this column first ran, we were marveled by the diverse array of Democratic presidential candidates. Just two weeks ago, we noted the all-white field of frontrunners and mostly white field of potentially up-and-coming contenders. And shortly after I posted that latest set of power rankings, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) dropped out of the race.

When we were dealing with the fallout from U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) and former HUD Secretary Julián Castro dropping out of the presidential race last month, we saw countless “hot takes” on why it doesn’t matter because Democrats obviously believe in civil rights and simply want to address more pressing matters, like “electability”. 

But considering how the conversation has changed since Harris’, Castro’s, and Booker’s fall from political grace, going from more high-minded discussions over abortion rights, gun violence, and immigration reform to seemingly endless low blows disguised as “high hopes”, I can’t help but wonder if the “invisible primary” is having the effect of blurring out voices of color speaking on the issues that voters of color care about the most.

But wait, here’s a little more postscript for you to keep in mind.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Of course, it’s possible that a white elected official can effectively advocate for communities of color. And of course, we can’t ignore the strong likelihood that voters of color will choose one of the white frontrunners as the Democratic nominee. One often boasts of his strong poll numbers (including his standing among voters of color), another uses various talking points to conceal his less flattering poll numbers (along with more substantive problems that may explain those poll numbers), and the other two are caught in a feud that pundits claim is rooted in their different bases of support among different sets of white voters.

Right here in Nevada, we’re dealing with a worsening housing crisis that’s hitting working-poor families the hardest, an overall growing racial wealth gap, law enforcement agencies that still won’t come clean on whether or not they’re aiding and abetting the White House’s deportation regime (and for that matter, targeting other vulnerable communities), and how to grow in a way that actually addresses the above issues instead of worsening the climate crisis. And yet, far too often, likely caucus-goers are still feeling the pressure to base their decision on the muddled concept of “electability” (as in, “just vote for the ‘safe’ white guy”).

There’s a reason why I chose that particular quote from that particular 1968 MLK speech for today’s lede. As I’ve been saying for some time, this “crisis of crises” that’s plaguing our world and our country requires us to go beyond the usual “safe bet”, as that allegedly “safe bet” likely means greater risk for greater disasters in the days ahead. MLK himself knew that he needed to move beyond “safe bets” to achieve greater social and economic justice, and it’s long past time for us to remember and honor his full legacy.

Cover photo by Walter Albertin, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by the Library of Congress and Wikimedia.

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