Every year since 1986, we, as a nation, have celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day on the third Monday of January. Martin Luther King Jr. is viewed as the architect of racial harmony in this country, and not many figures in our history are revered more. Not long after King’s death were legislatures and prominent leaders of the civil rights movement calling for a national holiday to commemorate his work and life. However, the idea that King should be celebrated for his contributions to society was one that was polarizing along racial lines. After years of debate and defeat, in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a national holiday. Now, students get a day off from school, leaders participate in acts of service to marginalized communities and social media is abuzz with various quotes. Yet, many times the full story of King is not told or remembered, in favor of one that is more convenient.
King’s teachings, like that of Jesus (and other religious figures), are easiest to digest when we accept those that do not make us uncomfortable, while ignoring those that do. As a society we have decided that a whitewashed King is his only palatable version. We proclaim his words that evoke positive emotion, such as this one given in a sermon on loving your enemies: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” Yet, it is still important to celebrate the fact that King called for resistance when it was necessary, like in this particular instance: “Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.”
Remember that King was a culture shifter. His mission was to alter the status quo, a task that is inherently disruptive. We must remind ourselves that the universally loved and admired man that today stands over Washington, D.C. in stone as a national monument, was once a controversial figure. Public opinion polling suggests that most Americans viewed King as a menace to the social fabric. However, he persisted with his peaceful protest and civil disobedience because it was just, irrespective of popularity. In the same light, modern protests of injustice that are villainized by President Trump, reported negatively about in the media and enjoy low approval amongst the populous must continue. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem before football games last season, for example, is extremely polarizing. Yet, he has ignited a discussion about race that most Americans would have preferred to not discuss. Like King and many other leaders of the civil rights movement, Kaepernick faces negative consequences for taking a stand. Despite having been villainized and losing his job, he is unapologetically a force for justice. History will remember his sacrifice.
King believed in building bridges instead of walls, but he didn’t turn his back to injustice just to appease the attitudes of moderates. And, if he were alive today, he would probably be one of the most vocal critics of the current administration and, frankly, the nation’s blatant regression on the issue of race. President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 presidential victory was seen as a breakthrough in the state of America’s race relations, a sign that most Americans were finally over the idea of skin color. After all, millions of white people went to the polls and made a young senator with an African name the most powerful man in the world. Yet, the opposition he faced was unlike that of any of his predecessors. His nominees waited for confirmation longer than for any president’s in history, his agenda was stonewalled for the last quarter of his tenure, his final supreme court pick was never even considered by the body instructed to confirm him by the U.S. Constitution. Throughout this, cultural figure Donald Trump rose to political prominence by popularizing rumors invented by the racist far-right in order to stoke the suspicions of ill-informed white people. After announcing his candidacy for president, he defeated his 16 Republican opponents, and eventually former Senator Hillary Clinton, while asserting that a wall erected along the southern border would solve the threat posed by “rapist” and “criminal” Mexicans, suggesting that black people lived in dense crime and poverty, callingfor a ban of all Muslims entering the United States and being extremely slow to denouncethe support of the terroristic Ku Klux Klan. Trump’s racism has only been exacerbated after he assumed power. Let us not act as if an 89-year-old King would have sat on the sidelines amid this debacle of presidential leadership and basic morality. King would have led the opposition.
My takeaway from the life and death of King: Always do what is right, even when it is unpopular. History will reward you. Like in his time, the quest for justice may be infringed upon, or maybe even momentarily stopped, but we must always remain in search of it. In our daily struggles with issues such as the current administration’s reckless policies and the University of Michigan’s resistance to white supremacist Richard Spencer, we must keep in mind King’s vision. Like King so eloquently said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Rest in Power, Dr. King.