We Have Come Far but We Have Not Overcome: So What Will You Do Tomorrow to Uphold the Legacy of Dr. King?

January 28, 2016

It’s become an all-too familiar pattern. Year in and year out, in observance of the federal holiday that marks the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we celebrate the occasion with a “day of service” or a “series of weekend events” aimed at uplifting and celebrating the tremendous life and legacy of the greatest moral leader of our time. These celebratory events, which take place in cities across California and the nation, are often visually powerful, historically reflective, and viscerally stimulating. There is no question that when we celebrate the life of Dr. King, we are affirming a life given in sacrifice to pursue a dream of equality and justice for all. However, symbolism and celebration alone will only serve to defer the down payment that Dr. King made in an effort to actualize the dream he had for all of us. So to state it very bluntly, what will you do tomorrow to uphold and continue the legacy of Dr. King?

Too many of us are resting on our laurels and have been lulled into a lethargic almost comatose state; satisfied with satisfactory and accepting of adequacy. Malaise has replaced movement and amnesia has usurped activism. We have become collectively silent and complacent about the issues that matter most to our communities. Reducing health disparities and educational inequities. Ending mass incarceration and dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline. Ensuring that young girls victimized by commercial sex trafficking are victims no longer. Giving hope to young men who are hopeless and find sanctuary in their gang affiliation. Solving the perverse and pervasive economic apartheid that keeps 1 in 4 children (73% of whom are Black and Latino) in California living in rampant poverty.

After the parades and revelry are over; after we’ve made our obligatory appearances at events and made our speeches; after we’ve found every famous quote that Dr. King uttered (and then turned it into a meme suitable for Twitter, Facebook and/or Instagram), what will we do? Will we recommit ourselves to the ethos of nonviolent direct social action espoused by Dr. King and grasp the fierce urgency of the moment? Or, as I often fear, has our celebration of Dr. King become solely a parochial exercise constrained to the three-day weekend that is set aside each year in his honor?

We have come far but we have not overcome. Dr. King’s birthday is a time for scrutiny and self-reflective inquiry. It is a recognition that in spite of the progress toward an equal and inclusive society, the intersection of racism, sexism, bigotry and intolerance continues to rear its ugly head. Yes, we have witnessed a flag removed from the South Carolina statehouse, but what have we really accomplished when the intolerance that the confederate flag signifies is embedded in the hearts and minds of individuals who legislate laws under domes in which the flag of this nation is flown. Yes, we have seen a movement that has tapped into a communal rage that exists among young and old alike, people across different professional and socioeconomic spheres, black and brown and white and all of the colors of the rainbow, affirming that black lives matter. Michael and Tamir and Renisha and Jordan and Trayvon and Ezell and Eric and Laquan and Sandra and Oscar. Charleston, South Carolina and McKinney, Texas and Baltimore, Maryland and Oakland, California. We say their names but will we remember them? Will we sustain this movement for justice and truth? Will we collectively persist toward the goal of fairness, equitable treatment, and transparent accountability by those who are sworn to protect the communities they serve? Or will we be distracted by the irrelevance of reality television and an insatiable appetite for commercialism instead of community? If we believe that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” what will you do tomorrow to truly bring life to those words?

In 1963, in the midst of the Birmingham movement to address legal exclusion and economic disparities, and the racial violence that attached to the fight against segregation, Dr. King wrote a book entitled “Why We Can’t Wait.” Four years later, in 1967, almost a year before his assassination, and seeking to provide a deep leadership of thought in the war against poverty and oppression, Dr. King published another book, “Where Do We Go from Here — Chaos or Community?” Both books — with titles posed in the form of a query, of a question — challenge us as organizations, as leaders, as community members, as people who are interconnected in this ecosystem of life — to reflect on where we are, where we have been, where we are going, and where we want to be.

There is no question of the immense challenges that we face. All too often I hear people express wonder at why such challenges are occurring. Wondering has turned to frustration and frustration has turned to anger. But anger without action is nothing more than a potential movement that has been castrated before it even begins. Disillusionment and disenchantment must shift toward determined, radical, and strategic action. Resolute in carrying out Dr. King’s dream. In other words, as Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, a leader whose overall work embodies an explicit recognition of Dr. King’s ethos, put it bluntly at the recent 24th Annual Empowerment Congress Summit, “Don’t celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday if you aren’t ready to do the work to carry out the dream.”

What does tomorrow look like for us at the Children’s Defense Fund-California to further the dream? We will continue to work to end child poverty by boosting income for families with children and strengthening the safety net for children. We will ensure that all children and families have access to comprehensive health coverage and care. We will continue to dismantle the pillars of the cradle to prison pipeline by ensuring that all children have access to a high quality education that begins in the earliest years, regardless of zip code, while ending the over-criminalization and incarceration of youth. That’s what we promise to do tomorrow and each and every day until all children can thrive.

Dr. King challenged us to confront the urgency of our collective mission: “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” We cannot rest.

Rhetoric and platitudes must be replaced with persistent tactical action. Less acceptance of the status quo and more agitation. Less patience and more provocation. Less compromise and more critique. It is incredible that nearly 50 years after the death of Dr. King, we are still fighting to enjoy the fullness of our constitutional guarantees of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now is not the time to be distracted or self-satisfied. Too many lives have been sacrificed; too many generations have been lost. So what will you do tomorrow to honor the legacy of Dr. King? Beloved, tomorrow must become today.