Martin Luther King Jr. Day is often a time for reflection on the battles he waged, the justice he worked for and the progress, or lack of it, since his death. It can be argued that such things should be at the forefront of our consciousness at all times, but most of us do not live that way. Our attention is on day-to-day struggles and triumphs, the welfare of our children and parents, our finances and our jobs.
But this year, more than most, it seems that the issues King focused on have led the newscasts and been at the center of events. And what’s missing from the conversation too often today is King’s patient and dignified tone, replaced by fear expressed as hatred and anger.
Because he died nearly 48 years ago, King can feel ancient to many of us. But it’s not crazy to imagine him alive today, fighting on. Born in 1929, King would have turned 87 on Friday, and would be four years younger than the still politically active Jimmy Carter. So what would he say to us today, what counsel would he offer?
Many of the laws the federal government established to help lift up minorities in King’s day are being challenged, but not always for the same reasons opponents fought their passage decades ago. Affirmative action in state college admissions, for instance, is under siege. It undoubtedly has helped a lot of minority students go to college, but it may also deny spots to impoverished whites. King’s dismay would be that, after all these years, we haven’t closed the gaps in K-12 educational success that make affirmative action necessary.
Much of the Voting Rights Act was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013, not least because attempts to keep people from voting are no longer limited mostly to the Southern states covered in the 1965 law King fought for. Laws banning housing discrimination may also fall, but it’s the fact that we are still so broadly segregated in so many places that would likely stir the preacher-turned-activist to action.
Beyond courts and laws, the nation seems to be constantly confronted with issues that stir fear and hate. On such subjects we have King’s own words to guide us still: “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him,” he told us. And, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
King taught that love is the opposite force and antidote to fear. Fear seems to be the specter that hangs over our nation and its discourse, while love, particularly between those who disagree, is in perilously short supply.
We see a challenging economy and frightening job market, income inequality, terrorism at home and abroad from religious radicals and godless maniacs. We see faltering schools, immigrants in need of succor and Americans in need of reassurance. Racial and spiritual and socioeconomic gulfs separate us. There is violence by police officers, and against them. King would recognize it all, as well as the progress made and the distance left to go.
He would tell us to fight for justice and to be kind. He would tell us to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other. He would tell us, as he did when he walked the Earth, that, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”