“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated this year on January 19. Every third Monday in January we honor the man who set the nation on the path to equality. Ronald Reagan signed this federal holiday into law in 1983, and by the year 2000 all 50 states were observing it.

Some states were initially reluctant to observe the day, as Dr. King had never held public office in his life, and a federal holiday has only been given to two other figures previously in the United States (George Washington and Christopher Columbus). Jesse Helms and one other North Carolina senator at the time led the campaign against the bill, citing Dr. King’s stance against the Vietnam War. Other states argued that the cost of giving all federal employees a paid day off was prohibitive. A petition with six million signatures supporting the law was delivered to Congress in 1981, however, and the bill was signed into law in the Rose Garden on November 2, 1983.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) was born on January 15, 1929 and was assassinated on April 4, 1968 by James Earl Ray in Memphis, Tennessee. MLK was a champion of non-violence and forgiveness. He believed in the principles set forth by Mahatma Gandhi: that all people are equal and deserve the same opportunities in life, not hindered by their race or class. He believed in agape, brotherly love and charity for all human beings, and he gave his life in the service of that belief.

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”

There is no doubt that the United States has made colossal strides in civil rights since Dr. King’s death, but recent events have brought new and different challenges to the nation’s attention. These challenges go deeper than ever before, digging into the institutions and systems that are the foundation of our nation. With the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, we have had to take a long look at ourselves and our deeply held beliefs and prejudices. Even if we have no direct connection to any of these deaths, we are all a part of this great nation that is struggling to understand what could have been done differently.

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

We are questioning whether or not the laws that protect us all truly protect us all. We are trying to find ways to talk to our children about the life and death decisions that police officers must make every day. We are struggling to find a way to understand how a situation could be out of control so quickly and result in a death that might have been prevented.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. lived in a time when a person could be thrown into jail, beaten, and even killed for the color of his or her skin. Jim Crow laws kept races separate and decidedly unequal. These laws are the lasting legacy of racism that goes generations deep. While young white men walk into the world confidently, parents of young black men are trying to figure out how to keep their children safe in a world that is supposed to protect all children, regardless of color. This is what Dr. King died for. This is what people of all races fought for in protests all over the country during the civil rights movement. To think that we are still worrying about our children coming home safe is a tragic setback for Dr. King’s vision.

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

These recent deaths have brought into question decisions made by first responders who routinely protect and serve our communities fairly and impartially. It is possible to have a deep and abiding respect for the sacrifices that officers make every day and still question the actions that resulted in the recent deaths of three young men (and others that are coming to light). It is possible to be frank and open when talking about the divide that still exists between the races, exacerbated by an ever-widening income gap. We can talk and maintain infinite hope in these conversations. We can make change and continue the legacy of Dr. King by “sitting down at the table of brotherhood.”

It is only when we point fingers and answer violence with violence that hope diminishes. It is when we reach the point when we cannot speak to one another, when all we are doing is shouting louder than each other. We must speak to each other with compassion; we must seek first to understand, then be understood.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

This year more than ever MLK’s words are important to remember on the annual celebration of his life. With events in Ferguson, New York City, and other areas of the country dividing the nation along lines of color, class, and socio-econominc status, now more than ever it is necessary to keep looking forward, to keep trying to understand, and to keep working hard to bring unity, compassion, and kindness to all citizens.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

If we are to carry on Dr. King’s vision, we must take his words to heart. We must love each other as ourselves. We must assume that others are acting with good intentions; we must care for one another in time of need, and we must not stop trying for equality for all.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a day on, not a day off. Find out how you can help during America’s National Day of Service, and take part in creating change in your community!

Image by InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr


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