It's MLK weekend and I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on his legacy and consider how I am living into the dream he had for our country. In the wake of the Tucson shootings, the Tunisian revolution, the political hissy-fit in Washington, and the daily lives we lead - I need to pause, take stock, and rededicate myself to living life responsibly and effectively.
The Tucson shootings created a collective gasp in our country. For those of us who are old enough to have lived through the 3 assassinations in the 1960s, we had that sinking feeling of no, not again. For younger people, who may have lived through the Reagan shooting, Oklahoma City, Columbine, or even 9/11 - I wonder how you view a political act of violence? My view is completely filtered by the Kennedy's and King. But when the news came out from Tucson I knew it would release a firestorm of fingerpointing, blame and fault. Unfortunately, there has been scant attention given to the need to take responsibility for what happened by all of us. The first reactions were that this lone gunman was solely responsible and that to hold anyone else accountable was unfair and unjust. Talk about turning logic on its head!
Then President Obama gave his magnificent speech and reminded us that we are each responsible for the climate in which we live, govern, work, and relate. At least that is how I heard it. He said:
As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let's use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.
I reread the MLK "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" and was inspired by his call for responsibility to the white clergy of Birmingham - holding them accountable and responsible for their culpability in the continuing segregation of the black population. He could have laid blame, he could have chastised them for being accomplices, but instead he said he was disappointed they did not take responsibility. He wrote,
As oppressors, we have a responsibility to right the wrongs and bring justice to light. With regards to Tucson we must speak up against the hate-filled rhetoric of the "cross-hairs" and demand civility. With regards to our urban blight and violence that has created a separate and unequal experience of life in the USA we must say, justice delayed is justice denied and not accept those conditions as given.Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."
MLK wrote, "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
I believe we must be extremists of responsibility. That does not mean to be vigilantes or to demonize those with whom we disagree. I am often quick to lay blame at the feet of Palin, Limbaugh, and Beck. But instead, I need to take responsibility for what I am doing - how am I sounding the message of extremism for justice? How am I living into the dream of MLK that ours would be a society of character and not color? What am I doing to prevent the next Tucson, the next bobble-head exchange of vitriol, the day-to-day despair of dreams denied by people like me that have more power and position than ever earned?
I hope you will reflect on this, post a response, converse about this with others, and take responsibility for elevating our discourse and our responses to effect change and ensure justice.
MLK despaired in that Birmingham jail,
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.