We come upon the National Holiday celebrating the birthday of the late civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a renewed sense of hope as we prepare for the inauguration of our nation’s first Black President. It should remind us all of the transformative role Dr. King played in our nation, and the sacrifice he, and countless others, made so that we would one day stand and witness a Black American take the oath of office to become commander-in-chief. The journey from slavery to Jim Crow to full participation in American society is not yet complete but we are closer to the fulfillment of the principles of our democracy than any of us would have ever imagined four decades ago when Dr. King delivered his famous address at the March on Washington, at the opposite end of the Mall where Barack Obama will be sworn-in on Tuesday.
On Monday January 19 millions of Americans across the country will take a break from work; some will use the day as intended – to reflect on the legacy of this 20th Century prophet and recommit to advancing his agenda for social and economic justice for the dispossessed. Still, too many others will use their day out of the office or classroom as an opportunity to engage in trivial pursuits, taking in a movie, “doing lunch” with friends or shopping at some “King Day” holiday sale, as gross as the latter may be. Sadly, many of the conditions that Martin Luther King, Jr. so vociferously opposed during his all too short life persist and, in some cases, have permutated into perhaps something even worse than the Baptist preacher could have ever imagined.
By any measure Black America is in crisis. Despite the material gains a small slither of African-Americans have made due to the expansion of the Black middle class, though now being eroded by an unforgiving recession, too many of us are still trapped by the structural inequities of American society. And rather than heading toward the vision of the “Promised Land” articulated by Dr. King in the speech in Memphis on the evening before his assassination, we appear to be spiraling in the chaos he warned of in his final book “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? On almost every level our country has been backsliding, moving away from making good on that promissory note King referred to on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, instead bouncing a check for the debt owed the descendants of African slaves in America.
The chasm in which our community has fallen runs wide and deep. Our embrace of learning and the pursuit of excellence in education have given way to a warped view of high achievement that equates it with acting white. The boundaries of respect have been shattered, as our elderly are no longer afforded the deference they are due and popular culture, in the form of misogynistic music lyrics, video games and rap videos, has degraded Black women. Our spiritual roots have been denigrated by the movement of our religious institutions away from faith and toward entertainment, the obsession of many of our pastors and churches with physical opulence, and the virtual silence of our major Christian denominations on important matters of public policy as they impact their congregations and Blacks in general. Where for instance are the voices of Black clergy opposing the conduct of an immoral war in Iraq by the United States in the manner that Dr. King spoke out against the Vietnam War and clerics like Bishop Alexander Walter of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church confronted President Woodrow Wilson over the treatment of Blacks during World War I?
And where society has not tightened its grip on our community, some of us have taken up a self-destructive path. Our outrage over police brutality, though well justified, seems almost a distraction when one considers the level of violence we inflict upon each other on a regular basis. There exists no safe haven in urban America, where most of us still reside, that is free from the senseless murders that are at times arbitrary, as in the cases of innocent children struck down by gang crossfire, at other times vindictive, as in cases of domestic violence and gang related killings. At no time could Dr. King have ever imagined his people having to fear each other.
It doesn’t stop there. Our children are now treated as disposable, a nuisance to be discarded once adults deem parenting to be too difficult or seek to recapture their own youth. Many Black youth are raising themselves and too often winding up wards of the state, incarcerated, homeless or preyed upon by adults and gang members. Many of our children face health challenges early in life simply because of poor nutrition, lack of preventive care, or exposure to toxins. The mythical “childhood” of our nation’s imagination does not exist for many Black children and youth because they face adult like crises early in life. The consequences are clear as we see many of our youth fall victim to their circumstances and die young.
Given the historic event that will follow this Martin Luther King, Jr. National Holiday, we should renew our commitment to Dr. King’s call for economic justice. We should not be lulled into a fall sense of security with the election of Barack Obama as President. There is still tremendous work to be done and President Obama cannot fix all of the nation’s shortcomings by himself. At every level we must take it upon ourselves to rebuild our community - physically, spiritually, and economically – to honor the life’s work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a generation of Black Americans who dared dream of “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”