The most important lesson of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”
This is one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King, because it emphasizes something that I believe we all need to be very mindful of in these times of Trump and everything else that we’re living through, namely that the work is never, ever done. The minute you think you’ve actually arrived at the Promised Land is the minute your Promised Land pass gets revoked.
Freedom is hard work, because evil simply does not sleep.
Take your pick of any number of outrageous items related to Trump and his so-called presidency and there is more than enough reason for outrage and anger. The kind of outrage and anger that makes you want to do something about it. But also keep in mind what Dr. King and so many others before him found out in the course of the struggle; it is never about just one person or event. It is about taking several big steps back and reviewing the entire broad landscape of injustice that is stretched out before us all that reaches beyond where our eyes are willing to reach.
And then it is about taking direct action.
Voters, especially black voters, took action in one of the reddest states in America when they got rid of Roy Moore last month and paved the way for Doug Jones in a victory no one could see coming. Voters in Virginia took action that same month when they elected Lt. Governor Ralph Northam over Ed Gillespie in a decisive victory that left no doubt and sent a clear message to Trump.
Come November, the mid-term elections will provide Americans with a number of opportunities to send a whole bunch of messages to Trump, hopefully of the sort that cannot be reprinted in a family newspaper. The electoral math seems to show that the most likely place for an upset victory will be in the House, but there’s a chance for the Senate as well. This may be the last, best chance that thoughtful, sane Americans have to begin reclaiming the country that is supposed to belong to all of us, not just the ones who proclaim themselves the Only Real Americans. Because the only real Americans are actually the ones willing to fight to the last breath and do whatever is necessary to make this country live up to its creed, as Dr. King once said. Those men referred to as the founders of this nation (I say ‘referred to’ because the Native American population might have a few issues with that designation) may not have intended for all of us to be included when they wrote all those high-minded words, but those founders are now dead and we aim to be included in that promise. This land is our land now. Or as King said:
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
One of the many things that made Dr. King special, and so very effective as a spiritual and moral leader, was his ability to force America to look at itself, even as it tried to break every mirror in the house. He forced America to not only recognize the value and the rights of black people, he forced America to question its own value as a nation unable – and unwilling – to fulfill its own promises to itself. He made America see that if we are not all valued as Americans then America is at risk.
What we are witnessing now is the naked display of all the evidence required to prove that not just the idea and dream of America, but the raw nuts and bolts that hold it together, are coming undone. Many are questioning whether America is going backward, or whether it ever really made any progress at all since Dr. King demanded that we all rise to the capabilities of not just our better selves but our best selves. The truth may be that, collectively speaking, we did not continue the work as consistently as it needed to be done, making it easier for cracks to splinter the wall we thought we had fortified against the perverse monstrosity we are currently facing.
We let our guard down, in other words. The devil stayed busy while we propped up our feet and congratulated ourselves prematurely on a civil rights – and human rights – victory that had not really been won. It’s not easy to accept the truth that you never truly arrive at your destination in the fight for freedom, but the sooner we accept that reality the better chance we have of at least keeping the beast at bay. As Dr. King said:
“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
Meaning individuals who aren’t afraid to raise their voice at every opportunity and every evidence of injustice.
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Let’s get to work.