Monday, January 18, 2016

Remembering King and Honoring His Legacy

I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., on June 15, 1964. My oldest brother graduated from college that day, and King received an honorary degree. When King was introduced, my mother told us to stand with the rest of the audience. The couple sitting behind us remained seated. My little sister asked our mother, "Why aren't they standing up?" Mother told us, "Some people don't understand what a great man he is." Here are a few reflections about what King did for us, and why the principles he stood for are so important for us today.

King did not fight people. He was the epitome of non-violence. But he was a fighter, and he did fight. He fought, in his words, poverty, racism, and war. 

His greatest written work, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," explained that we are one country, one nation. In response to white clergymen who complained of "outside agitators" coming to Birmingham to rally in support of civil rights, King said, "I am in Birmingham because injustice is here:"
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. 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. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Fifty years later our world is smaller, more intimate, more of a small town than it was in 1963, but this means that none of us can live in a small town any more. Communication with people of other lands is unlimited and instantaneous. Travel anywhere in the world is now feasible within a single day. Products from all over the world flood our stores and our homes. Education and economic progress have uplifted billions of people. The equality of the human race has never been nearer or more evident, and our understanding of the words "all men are created equal" is immeasurably deeper and broader than it was in 1963.

The principle of equality encompasses African-Americans. It encompasses women. It encompasses gays and lesbians. It encompasses Muslims. It encompasses Mexicans, and South Americans, and Asians, and Africans, and persons of all nationalities who have come to this land eager to work for a better life and willing to sacrifice in order to build a better society.

But just as in 1963, there are those who are frightened by equality. They are afraid that their status, or their power, or their privilege is threatened when Spanish-speaking people live and work among us, or when people of the same sex get married and have families, or when an African-American or a woman becomes President of the United States. Instead of celebrating these developments they claim that these people are different, they are outsiders, they are abominations, they are foreigners. Even in the face of incontrovertible proof many millions of American citizens refuse to accept the fact that our President was born in the United States -- that he is a "natural born citizen" -- that he is one of us.

Racism, sexism, homophobia, and xenophobia are not only alive they are walking among us, and we must fight them all.

The same people who are afraid of foreigners and who oppose equality embrace and even revere violence. They not only promote gun ownership, they exult in it. They elevate the Second Amendment over the First Amendment. They would take over federal buildings with guns and steal federal land. They would turn the Constitution on its head and would have arbitrary forces prevail over the deliberative. In the conduct of foreign affairs they prefer war to negotiation. To them, the Iran treaty, perhaps the greatest victory of American diplomacy since the Test Ban Treaty of 1963, is the equivalent of surrender. They would re-institute the torture of prisoners, a practice that had been unlawful in our civilization for 500 years.

King resisted violence with steadfast courage, and so must we.

The greatest issue of our day is climate change, because it threatens life on earth itself. The second greatest is income inequality, and all of the barriers that inequality creates to obtaining decent housing, reliable child care, a good education, a fulfilling career, affordable health care, and an honorable retirement. At its foundation, the solution to economic inequality is sharing -- fairly sharing the bounty of the earth and the fruits of our labors. Persons who receive billions of dollars as the result of the labor of tens of thousands of people are no more entitled to all those billions than the monarchs and aristocrats of the Middle Ages were entitled to what they could wring from the sweat of other people's brows. To maintain their privileged position the billionaires of today stoke hatred and exploit fear -- they seek to distract and divide us.

Economic inequality is a cancer, and we must continue to adopt laws and refine policies so that every person receives a fair share of what our society produces.

King's legacy is alive. My mother would be proud of those who are still fighting poverty, racism, and war.


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