Some Thoughts on MLK Day 2020

What follows is the text of a speech I gave at the 31st Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute, sponsored by the Bowling Green Human Relations Commission.

Thank you so much for inviting me here, and for coming out to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Before I begin my presentation, I would like to acknowledge the land on which we stand and its relationship to Native American communities of the past and present. Wood County was once part of the territory of the Peoria, Miami and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The community of Bowling Green stands upon indigenous grounds. With this land acknowledgment statement, we reflect on our own use of this indigenous land and ongoing processes of colonialism. 

The United States has a complex history. Our country was founded on the principle of liberty, but that idea was entwined with the oppression of others through slavery, genocide, and the theft of land. With this land acknowledgement statement, I want to remember that history and honor those who have fought for the dignity, rights, and equality of all people. Please learn more about the long and ongoing history of Native American activism, which intersects with the civil rights movement in key respects. I encourage you all to read Vine Deloria, Jr.’s book Custer Died for Your Sins (published in 1969).

Today we are here to consider the legacy of Dr. King. Perhaps when you think of Martin Luther King, Jr., you hear in your head his “I have a dream” speech at the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington D.C. Or perhaps you recall photographs or film of him at the head of a crowd of thousands crossing Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama. If you know a bit more, you may also remember his work in 1966 in Chicago fighting for equal housing, or his efforts before his death in 1968 to support sanitation workers in Memphis. Each of these historic moments is memorialized in one of his great speeches. But these moments were part of a much larger movement – an expansive movement for equality in education, economics, politics, housing, social life, and much more. Unfortunately, as the scholar Jeanne Theoharis reminds us, the history of the civil rights movement that we usually learn “is a fable” that “distorts and obscures” the “more beautiful and terrible” truth by making change seem inevitable and turning MLK into Santa Claus and Rosa Parks into a tired old lady. The reality is that change is never inevitable; it must be fought for. The reality is that in 1966, a Gallup poll found that 72% of white Americans had an unfavorable opinion of King.[1] Likewise, Parks was an experienced activist whose decision not to move on that Montgomery bus was carefully planned long in advance.

The truth is that in his own time, King was hated and feared by whites across the country. But over time, the justice of his cause has come to seem obvious. At the same time, the softening of collective memories has obscured the civil rights movement’s greatest achievement: that tens of thousands of people created a truly grassroots social movement. The beautiful and terrible truth is that King was no more, and no less, than a powerful figurehead of many interrelated efforts, which were organized and enacted by ordinary citizens who decided to be part of a larger movement for social change. King clearly understood he was a publicly recognized symbol of the movement, but that the movement was much larger than any one person. 

So today, let us honor not just MLK, but also crucially important figures like Ella Baker, Unita Blackwell, Julian Bond, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Marian Wright Edelman, James Farmer, James Forman, Fannie Lou Hamer, Mary King, Amzie Moore, Bob Moses, Pauli Murray, Diane Nash, Bayard Rustin, Kwame Ture, Carl Wittman, and Howard Zinn. In this brief list are lawyers and teachers, actors and politicians, sharecroppers and college students, activists who were black and white, poor and rich, queer and straight, Northern and Southern. The civil rights movement was largely led by Black, Christian Southerners, but it was aided by the whole cross-section of America: white and Asian American and Latino; Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Quakers, and atheists; Northeasterners, Midwesterners, and Westerners; from teenagers to octogenarians. There is no one kind of person who becomes an activist, who joins a movement. Change can be made by any of us, and movements are strongest when they bring together diverse constituencies, with different experiences and opinions, in a common effort.

Let us also remember the work of many different organizations, with different priorities and tactics, who found common purpose under the broad banner of civil rights: organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Black Panther Party. These groups, and the members within these organizations, often disagreed vehemently. But their collective work accomplished monumental changes to our society and institutions. Let us honor them by finding common ground and common cause with those with whom we disagree.

On this day, let us also honor the tens thousands of volunteers from across the United States, whose names have been forgotten, but whose efforts were crucial. These unheralded heroes did the difficult, invisible work of organizing, planning, and preparing for the high-profile events that moved the conscience of a nation. Their individual contributions may not have been memorialized in famous speeches or by photographs, but the movement was built on their efforts. Just as a tidal wave is made of individual drops of water, a movement consists of countless individuals, doing innumerable small acts, to create massive effects.

These ordinary heroes knocked on doors to register people to vote. They organized carpools during bus boycotts. They made phone calls to gather participants to attend marches and sit-ins. They talked, debated, and planned. They wrote letters, journalism, books, and poetry. They raised money, a quarter at a time, dollar by dollar. They organized informal schools to teach young people academic subjects, citizenship curriculum, and Black history. They worked long hours behind the scenes in offices and church basements and living rooms. They kept working long after cameras stopped rolling.

Tens of thousands of ordinary Americans did a million small things that made possible extraordinary changes to our nation’s laws, including the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. These changes benefited everyone in the nation. They increased women’s participation in higher education and career achievement. They paved the way for LGBTQ* rights. They led to transformations in the nation’s immigration laws. They influenced the disability rights movement. They inspired other minority groups to fight for increased representation and opportunity. We are a better and stronger country as a result of the innumerable efforts of these ordinary Americans.

We would do well to remember MLK as just the tip of an enormous iceberg, the visible peak of mountain made up of tens of thousands of ordinary citizens. So, on this MLK day, let us remember the unnamed heroes whose often tedious and repetitive, but crucial work achieved extraordinary results. It is this same kind of unglamorous, consistent, work that is necessary to create change in our own generation. It will take a sustained movement of ordinary citizens who commit to doing the grassroots work necessary to ensure we move toward greater equality, rather than inequality. Because while our laws may have changed, our institutions continue to apply the law profoundly unequally to the poor, to people of color, to people with mental illnesses. The work is not complete.

The real spirit of this day is not to honor one man or to congratulate ourselves on what has been accomplished. The real spirit of the day is to honor the power of ordinary people to create a movement. It is to honor those who work to change their communities and the nation, and to inspire the world. The civil rights movement mobilized local communities to action, whether in Indianola, Mississippi or Detroit or Atlanta. And it convinced tens of thousands of people that NOW was the time to demand better. It is this spirit that should move us today to act for justice in our own communities.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King addressed white moderates who claimed to support the goals of the civil rights movement, but were wary of its tactics. He wrote, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace of direct action.” Point by point, King shows that moderates’ caution was about their own ­­reluctance to stand up for what was right. In their caution to wait for “the right time” to act, or the “right kind of action,” they failed to do right. As he insisted,“The Time is Always Ripe to Do Right.” I want to repeat this line, for we need to remember it now, in 2020. The time is always ripe to do right. The moment to act against injustice is always NOW. The moderate’s call for patience does not make anyone’s lives better; for, indeed, justice delayed is justice denied.

NOW is always the right time for action. The civil rights movement didn’t spring out of thin air. It was created, step by weary step, phone call by phone call, door by door, envelope by envelope. And so today, I say especially to my fellow white people, that it’s on us to participate in our own era’s human rights struggles. There is plenty of work to be done to address deep injustice in our own time. Mass incarceration, income inequality, LGBTQ* rights, disability rights, women’s rights, climate change, refugee and immigration policies, and islamophobia are all crucial issues that we must address NOW. NOW is the time for all of us to act in accordance with the principle of liberty and justice for all. Now is the time for all of us, but especially my fellow white people, to act – affirmatively, explicitly, thoughtfully, and with self-awareness – in our own homes, workplaces, churches, and communities to make these spaces more welcoming, equitable, fair, and just. We cannot wait for a leader to show us the way. MLK didn’t start the civil rights movement; it began long before his birth and continued long after his death. We must all step into leadership. We must each ask ourselves, what am Igoing to do personally to work toward solutions?  What am I going to do to build coalitions and join a movement to address these problems?

In the five or more decades since the peak of the civil rights movement, white Americans have managed to convince ourselves that we all would have been on the right side of history. That had we been young adults in the 1950s or 1960s, we would have stood up against injustice. But that’s just a comforting fiction. It’s a lie. The vast majority of white people in the North as well as the South, were against integration. In many cities, whites closed down the public schools for periods of time, rather than integrate. Discriminatory housing policies have profoundly shaped our own region, ensuring segregation would continue into the present day. Our system for funding schools based on local property taxes ensures continued inequality. The truth is, unless we proactively work to change these systems, we are no different than those white people who stood by and did nothing while they watched black protesters on television being attacked with dogs, sprayed with firehoses, spit on, beaten, and worse.

The legacy of the civil rights movement was to spur ALL Americans to action, to have our consciences pricked by the injustices happening all around us. Now is the time for all of us to actively DO something without being asked, without waiting for an occasion. To the white members of our community, I want to say that teaching tolerance isn’t enough. It’s necessary, but it isn’t enough. Being a bystander who intervenes when they see racism or xenophobia or islamophobia in action is necessary, but it isn’t enough. We need to do more than react when we see injustice. We need to act, every day, in every moment, in accordance with our values. We need to show up in our workplaces, in our neighborhoods, in our places of worship, in our community centers and sites of leisure and actively seek ways to make those spaces more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and welcoming. We need to do the invisible, necessary work of incremental change. This doesn’t require power or money, eloquence or erudition. It requires commitment and a willingness to show up, every day. It means proactively analyzing our official policies but also our informal processes. It means addressing inequality and injustice in our institutions: our schools, healthcare system, legislature, the police and courts, our places of worship. It means taking a hard look at the subtler ways we may intentionally or unintentionally make some people less than welcome, less than fully heard, less than equal partners.

To often we expect those who are the victims of discrimination to also do the work of educating and showing others what to do about those problems. This adds additional burdens to those who are already living in a society that doesn’t treat everyone equally. White people (and anyone who is able to move through certain institutions and systems comparatively frictionlessly) must make efforts to educate ourselves and join in the struggle. Those in positions of social power – whether due to race, socio-economics, religion, gender identity, sexuality, physical ability, seniority, or other factors – need to do more. I am asking you to meaningfully and consistently stand with those whose lives are made more vulnerable or difficult. I say to stand with, but not for, others. No one needs a savior or a spokesperson. Instead, I am asking you to stand alongside those whose experiences may be different from your own, to seek out and really listen to their voices. Take risks to speak out. Use some of the social capital you have to make your community more equitable. You will be better for it. Your organizations will be improved. Our communities will be stronger.

What I am talking about is often called allyship. Writer, activist, and social worker Feminista Jones prefers the word “co-conspirator.” As she explains, “The people who tend to call themselves allies are usually the people with privilege, who will not have a mutual benefit from whatever they’re trying to help with.” This kind of thinking about allyship positions “us” as helping “them.” The reality is, we are ALL harmed by inequality and injustice. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and other systems of domination distort and deform the moral compass of those with privilege, as well as harm those they target. Instead, Jones wants “co-conspirators.” As she puts it, “what we’re doing is conspiring to shut down entire systems of oppression. We are challenging that system and so we have to conspire. We have to plot and plan the ways in which we can tear those systems down.” I ask you to think about how you can conspire with others to tear down the systems that are unjust and inequitable. Only then can we rebuild them to truly treat all people fairly.

You can start being a co-conspirator today. Start by making a commitment to doing SOMETHING immediately, in your own community, in the organizations and institutions you already are involved with. Get involved with organizations like Not In Our Town, the Perrysburg Coalition of Inclusion and Social Justice, La Connexión, the YWCA, or Advocates for Basic Legal Equity. Start by actively working every day, in small but crucial ways, to make your organizations more equitable. I am talking about doing more than just being nice or neighborly. Use your voice, use your authority to speak up for those who aren’t in the room when decisions are being made, or who may not feel comfortable speaking up in a room where they are in the minority. Invite people into the room who wouldn’t have access otherwise. Speak up in your schools, such as when you see racial or socio-economic disparities in which children are selected for gifted and talented programs or when you see disproportionately in who gets punished (and how) for misbehavior. Do something in your workplaces when you notice hiring practices that continually yield a narrow pool of candidates who all seem to have similar backgrounds and experience. Demand wheelchair-accessible entrances and bathrooms, and insist on microphones for visiting speakers – regardless of whether anyone in your office has a visible disability. Support organizations that are doing something about the horrifying fact that for every nine people who have been imprisoned on death row, one of those people has been proven innocent. We cannot continue to accept these outcomes.

I want you to critically analyze the institutions and policies you encounter on a daily basis, and to make sure that they are not just “fair” on their face, but that they actually are actively working to increase the diversity of the voices we hear, that they are truly inclusive. Our goal should not be merely to tolerate or accommodate. If we are not actively working toward greater equality, then we are in fact reinforcing inequality. As Ibram X. Kendi explains, “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.”[2] Let’s each of us work to ensure our policies actually work toward increasing equity. I want us to embrace dialogue and even conflict, not as an end in itself, but as a means to learning more about how others experience the world.

What I really want to advocate is an attitude, a disposition, an approach to activism that isn’t about doing the “right thing” at the right moment, but is instead about always trying to do better and to do more. I want us to go from reacting to problems to proactivelyworking to ensure equitable outcomes. That means not being defensive, but instead being open. It means actively and continually trying to educate oneself about issues (such as changing language, best practices, more inclusive policies) and then seeking to put those practices into action – without waiting for someone else to ask for, demand, or legally require those things. It means accepting that you will get things wrong – and you will – because often there is no single right answer, because there is always more to do to increase access and opportunity to more people, because different people will have different preferences and priorities, and because both the questions and the “answers” will continue to change over time.

This may sound tiring. And it is work. But it is also exhilarating and empowering to feel part of a movement to change the world. We encourage children to dream big, to say they want to change the world. But we laugh when adults say those things; we call them naïve or ingenuous or Pollyanna-ish. But that’s precisely what Martin Luther King, Jr. was striving for. He had the temerity to dream of a radically different future. And the ordinary heroes of the civil rights movement had the will to do the hard work of trying to create that world. So let’s get down to work, together.

[1] Jeanne Theoharis, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History. Beacon Press, 2018, p. 3.

[2] Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist. One World Press, 2019, p. 19.

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