“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – From Strength to Love, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Obviously, there’s been a lot going on during these first few days of the new year. But as we approach MLK Day weekend, let’s reflect on why this is a holiday weekend, 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.
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
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
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 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.”
Cover photo provided by the Library of Congress, and made available by Wikimedia.