MLK DAY SHOULD BE EVERY DAY
One day a year to love justice is not enough
I was fifteen when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. My mother was in the kitchen making dinner and I was watching television in the den when a “Breaking News” flash came across the screen. My mother came to stand next to me and we listened dumbfounded to the news that Dr. King had been shot and killed. My mother sat down slowly on the couch, took a deep breath and closed her eyes. A couple of minutes later my father walked through the back door and I ran up to him with the news. His reaction was something I won’t forget. He just stared into the distance, his jaw set, and said slowly, “Those bastards.”
It would be years before I understood the full significance of Dr. King’s life, or of his death. But I knew a giant was gone. Several months later Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed as well, and by that time it was as though the entire country was bleeding from an open wound. Remember, JFK had been assassinated only 5 years before that. It was as though a volcanic eruption had occurred and the lava was everywhere, burning everything. Our hopes and dreams were turned to ash. Just as “those bastards” had intended.
And that in a way is the worst part of it all. The people who killed the Kennedys and King had much bigger aspirations than just murdering those three individuals. They were trying to murder the vision of a just America, the political possibilities that those men represented. And in many ways they succeeded. Every year at the anniversary of King’s death, and Bobby’s death, I sadly recognize that everything we feared would happen when they died, has happened. Dr. King’s “three evils” of militarism and poverty and racism continue to plague us; those who would decry them most passionately now are often yelling into the wind. We can talk all we want to, we can even protest and write books and have TV shows! But changing public policy is a whole other thing altogether.
Militarism is now core to America’s business model; poverty is simply its collateral damage; and racism is okay to criticize in theory yet continues its pernicious hold on everything from policing to criminal justice to economic policy. We can use MLK Day to celebrate him all we want, but I’m not sure it means that much when the other 364 days of the year we are practically spitting on his grave.
What would Dr. King say about that $858 billion defense budget? What would he say about letting a child tax credit - one that cut child poverty in half - expire after six months and Congress not permanentize it? What would he say about our failure to raise the minimum wage for the last 13 years, while billionaires have seen their profits skyrocket? What would he say about our failure to pass meaningful police reform? What would Dr. King say about a president who gives a speech at Ebenezer Church about how wonderful he was, when Dr. King himself was in Memphis the day he died to support striking sanitation workers and said president just smashed the hopes of striking railroad works who simply wanted sick pay?
You think all those nice tweets today would be enough to make him happy, do ya?
If Dr. King had lived, he would be 94 today. He would hopefully be enjoying a well deserved rest after years of brilliant transformative leadership. But even had he lived, you and I would have the responsibility now to take up where he left off. What he would want to hear from us, I think, is, “Thank you, Martin. We’ll take it from here.”
It’s not enough to praise him; we should emulate him. We should remember his words, that “our lives begin to end on the day we become silent about things that matter.” He never became silent about things that matter, and neither should we. But we can’t just talk. We’ve got to act.
During the Obama presidency there was a push to make Dr. King’s birthday a “national day of service.’ That annoyed me, for it totally and completely missed the point. No amount of private charity can compensate for a basic lack of social justice. Dr. King was about more than personal transformation; he was about societal transformation. And he was about more than doing good works; he was about passing good laws. And so should we be.
We should use this day not only to look back but also to look forward. Dr. King quoted the prophet Amos, wanting “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Oh what America would look like if that were true. The message of this day should not just be Let’s all remember. To honor him the most, it should be Let’s all get down to work.
There is still so much to do.
Really beautiful piece, Marianne!
I was nine years old when President Kennedy was shot and we were all sent home at 1pm. I lived through the asasinatiion of Martin Luther king and Bonnie Kennedy in my graduation day from 8th grade. By then, at 14, I had lost hope for my country. At that point, I became an activist. I canvassed door to door for Eugene McCarthy. I was at the first Earrh Day in NYC. I volunteered for NARAL(National Abortion RightsAction League.) I spent years on the phone trying to convince people that a woman’s body was her own. I was an actress, so of course I marched in the beginning of the gay movement’s marches. I fought for Civil Rights and addressed envelopes for Equal Pay for Equal Work. We made tremendous progress in those years and I am proud to have been a small part of that change.
Yet, these days, at 68 years old, I am watching what we built crumbling.
The best hope I have now are the very young. I have been actively befriending GenZ’s. They are so cool! I recognize in them the same fire that I felt at their age. And they’re even better. They are fearless. Whether Republican or Democrat, they hold firm to the rights of everyone to be who they want to be.
I have been learning a lot from them, and they give me hope that long after I’m gone, this dream that is America, this dream that is equity for everyone across the planet, will continue. If people work it, it happens.