This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day falls one day before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first black American president. Every one of us will likely spend some part of the day reflecting on how we helped bring about this historic change in American politics.
The key to the Obama victory was the collective movement, led by young people with real demands — demands for real integration, an end to war, an unjust foreign policy, second-class treatment for immigrants, the cynical policies of Bush and the Republicans, and the Clinton Democrat policies of moderation and accommodation to racism. It is the historical obligation of the young people who led the Obama movement to march forward toward real equality now.
This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day provides all of us with the opportunity to recommit to political activism. It is a day to march, rally and reflect on what we can learn from important social leaders like King, whose legacy will forever be remembered as how to transform the social relations, policies and identity of a nation. King’s words about the “fierce urgency of now” from his famous “I Have a Dream” speech could not be more pertinent: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”
Over the next four years, our biggest danger will be holding our breath and leaving it up to Obama to realize our hopes for true social equality. It would be a dishonor to Obama’s historic achievement if we retreated now in the face of victory and returned to our daily lives as if our job was done.
To the question, “When will you be satisfied?” King answered, “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” In this same vein, our movement cannot be satisfied as long as the ban on affirmative action continues to drive down the number of black, Latino, Native American and other minority students on our campuses; as long as undocumented immigrant students cannot receive financial aid for college simply because they were born on the other side of the border; as long as immigrant communities live under the threat of raids, deportations, and harassment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement; as long as our government continues to conduct a war in Iraq and support Israel’s campaign of terror against the Palestinian people; and as long as gay marriage is not legally recognized and there is state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people.
When we poured out into the streets on November 4 to celebrate Obama’s election, we had a sense that our campus and our society could be united, whether black, Latina/o, Arab, Asian, Native American, white, woman, man, gay or straight.
Now, those feelings of pride, solidarity and renewed hope must be turned into collective action. The real hope lies in the power of our independent, youth-led civil rights movement, and it is our job to build that movement and make those hopes real.
Kate Stenvig is a Michigan Student Assembly representative and an organizer for By Any Means Necessary.