Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated that he was a dreamer. But he was also a realist. He knew full well that whatever gains in equality his movement made, and it made huge strides, the fight would not be won merely by changing laws. He’d seen all his life that racial injustice didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation, nor with the adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.
Yet he fought, not with weapons and violence, but with logic and information. King’s vision relied on the notion that if more white Americans could see the ugly effects of racism, they would reject it. And that equality could stem from more people seeing that Blacks were like them — with similar hopes and aspirations — not some “other,” less worthy, people.
It worked to a point, but more than a half-century later, we’ve seen there is still a long way to go.
Even the events most on our minds today point to the continuing need to fight this battle.
That the apologists for the insurrection at the Capitol this month compared that movement to the Black Lives Matter protests last year is as disturbing as it is spurious. The latter, a social justice movement, grew out of centuries of unnecessary deaths and systemic prejudice. The assault on the Capitol, while in some ways rooted in many years of disappointing government, was seeking to overturn — not reform — that government. Violently.
Moreover, though it shouldn’t be claimed that all who took part in the Capitol riot are white supremacists, it’s notable that those whose clothing and paraphernalia (Camp Auschwitz T-shirts, Confederate flags) mark them as such felt perfectly comfortable exhibiting that side of themselves in the group.
And perhaps most telling of all was that while a peaceful protest by BLM members and supporters months ago at the Lincoln Memorial was met with hundreds of armed troops, this month’s rioters — almost all white, many sporting protective gear and weapons — were allowed to gain access to one of the nation’s most sacrosanct chambers without much resistance. One can only imagine how events would have unfolded if the Jan. 6 crowd storming the Capitol were mostly Black.
No, the biases and narrow-minded thinking King battled did not end with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They did not end with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. They continue with every effort to suppress minorities and are reflected in the resistance of voters in many states to allowing same-sex couples the same basic rights of heterosexuals. The current atmosphere in our country, and elsewhere, is a troubling sign the progress made remains on shaky ground. But progress was made, and the battle is a worthy one, as King showed.
We observe King’s birthday today because of what he did and what he meant in our nation’s history, but also because, frankly, we can’t have a holiday for everyone who fought the same fight. King acts as a stand-in in this regard for Keene’s Jonathan Daniels and for Medgar Evers, John Lewis and Rosa Parks and many others.
He represents those of similar courage and honor elsewhere in the world — such as Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi — who nonviolently promoted the basic rights of others.
Today is his day, but it is more than that. It’s a day to dwell not on our differences, but instead on our similarities, on what makes us all equally worthy of the same basic rights.