Visionary, leader, activist, peerless orator, husband, father, man of faith: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly a remarkable man. The primary face of the Civil Rights Movement, he deserves all of the accolades heaped upon him.
He and the people he led faced down bigots with torches and nooses and water cannons. Their bravery, rooted deeply in nonviolence, changed the country. Not completely. Not nearly enough. But a bit. And over the decades that “bit” has taken on a life of its own.
In the world I live in—as a white woman in the rarefied East Coast liberal bubble—we believe we’ve moved past questions of “integration,” sometimes called by the fancier name of “diversity.” Inside the bubble, we talk of inclusion now; it feels like a big step forward.
I firmly believe my clients want to be inclusive—and many other members of Corporate America do too. But you have to leave the office sometimes. And when we do, I fear we’ll soon be stepping back into the worst of the 1950s and ’60s. For people of color, for anyone whose religion doesn’t conform to the strictures of evangelical “Christianity,” for women, for LGBT people, these are perilous times.
I fall into all but the first of those categories. White folks like me are finding out what our brothers and sisters of color have unfortunately known forever: what it’s like to live in a country where you can’t trust that the people behind the political institutions and social infrastructure have your back.
Where’s Martin Luther King, Jr. when you need him?
Dr. King was right to remind us
“…the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
As a lesbian, I’ve felt hopeful in the last few years that the arc has been shortening. Now I see what our friends in other communities have known all along: it’s only an illusion. Laws are just words on paper, and they only work when we agree to respect them. As democracy and the social compact crumble in the face of authoritarianism, I have to wonder: Just how far around the bend is justice?
Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for the divisive racist we will inaugurate as president this week. Yet those of us who loathe the man and what he stands for don’t have a leader to coalesce around. Who can help carry us forward? Who can help us stem the tide of hatred that’s about to swamp our institutions and laws?
Where’s our next Dr. King?
Look in the mirror. Look at your neighbors. At each other, as Gloria Steinem said.
We each have a responsibility to step forward, to lead our own personal protests, however small they may be. We each need to take every opportunity we have to stand up for justice—for all, just like we say in the Pledge of Allegiance.
It’s been a long time since I read Bearing the Cross, David J. Garrow’s Pulitzer Prize–winning account of Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but one quotation near the end of the book has stayed with me over the decades. It’s a woman named Diane Nash. My notes say she was an “SCLC worker,” but if memory serves me, I think she may also have gone to school with Dr. King, so she knew him personally. Nash says:
“If people think that it was Martin Luther King’s movement, then today they—young people—are more likely to say ‘gosh, I wish we had a Martin Luther King here today to lead us’…If people knew how that movement was started, then the question they would ask themselves is, ‘What can I do?'”
What can I do?
What can I do? It’s not a comfortable question. But these are not comfortable times.
We can’t wait around for the next Martin Luther King, Jr. to reveal himself. Or herself. If Diane Nash is right, the seeds of leadership are in all of us. And we have a responsibility—to our world, to our country, to each other—to restore civility. To honor and respect each other. To shorten that moral arc once again, and round that final bend to Justice.