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2012 Winter Issue 2 (January 20, 2012)

Reflections on Martin Luther King's legacy

January 20, 2012
By Samir Bhala

We seek today to commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King, as the visionary face of the American Civil Rights Movement during midcentury truly believed in equality in America and tirelessly labored on the behalf of what he perceived as just, fair, and equal.  Closing one of his sermons, the good reverend spoke “if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice.  Say that I was a drum major for peace.  I was a drum major for righteousness.”  Despite his reluctance to serve as the face of the Civil Right Movement, his pacifist mindset, like that of Mahatma Gandhi before him, captured the imaginations of his contemporaries and of the generations that have come after him that have acquainted themselves with the his hopes and dreams for society. 

All of us at Carleton are acquainted with Dr. King’s dream, to which he gave voice on a sweltering hot summer day at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.  Dr. King, as we recall, had a dream that his four little children “would one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  Dr. King speaks an acceptance of difference, regardless of race, ethnicity, creed, or class.  He hearkens back to the founding fathers who, in endeavoring to create a unique and novel social state in a new land, declared the fundamental equality of all.  It is a powerful message that speaks of the infinite possibility within the individual American spirit; one that my own immigrant parents have instilled in me as I have grown older.  Memorable as his sermon was, to condense the legacy of this great man down to an improvised sentence at end of a long speech discards the tremendous nuance and depth to his speech.  It defaults on the notion that we have achieved all that there is to achieve within Dr. King’s paradigm.  Rather, the way I see it, Dr. King’s enduring legacy instills a sense of urgency as to what work has yet to be done.

Yet, this nation has changed tremendously and, although racism, sexism, and homophobia may still exist, their grasp on our society proves much weaker today.  Likely inconceivable to Dr. King in 1963 would have been the election to President of the United States of a mixed-race man, the subsequent appointment of a woman to the head the US State Department, the confirmation to the Supreme Court of a woman of Hispanic heritage.  These national accomplishments honor Dr. King, and demonstrate considerable progress.  For this alone, we should celebrate in the name of equality.

However, Dr. King, to me, also represents the long, wearying, and continuing war for social and economic justice.  The unfulfilled promissory note, the cheque which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds,’ sustains its weight on America in its present, demonstrable, but tolerated inequalities.  A subtler, more subversive inequality thrives. 

Our schools remain unequal.  Funding for basic public education remains inherently regressive, and the income gap is reproduced.

Our political process allows for seemingly unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns.  This undermines the precept of one man and one vote in our democracy; money amplifies the voices of the few and the powerful.

The nation’s banks, through government massive cash infusions, have become too big to fail in light of a financial crisis they, themselves, brought about; yet, millions of households wait patiently for their own bailout, their unemployment check.

To paraphrase Paul Krugman, “our nation judges man not by the color of his skin – or not as much as it used to – but by the size of his paycheck.” 

In the four decades since Dr. King was assassinated while marching for higher wages, this nation has seen its foundations further eroded and the rights of self-determination for its citizens further undermined.  Income inequality, joblessness, and achievement gaps persist.  Now, as then, cynical politicians use code-words to frighten, to impose a warped form of social Darwinism on the nation.  Now, as then, these so-called leaders exploit legitimate fears for political gain.  Now, as then, the shivering winters of the nation’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is a reinvigorating spring, rebirth.  It is this part of Dr. King’s dream, this fight for equitability that truly speaks to me. 

Why?  It is so because, as written by Dr. King’s son, “the right to sit at a lunch counter is empty if you cannot afford a meal.”  Dr. King’s dream of equality extends beyond our skin tones to the fundamental fact that every man, woman, and child is endowed by our creator to receive an equitable education, job, and income so that each of us can pursue our lives, our liberties, and our pursuits of happiness.  In this respect, our nation has deferred Dr. King’s dream. 

Yet, to revel in hopelessness is to forget the entire legacy of this great man.  Thus, I arrive at what Dr. King’s legacy means for me, a twenty-three year old, disabled, son of immigrants.  Despite it all, Dr. King’s legacy represents that nothing is out of the realm of possibility.  We all must continue to push forward and fight for what is right in our lives.  Together, we can, and we will, make a difference.  We hold it within our own selves to alter our situation, to change our country, to view life as a series of trials, and to never let individual set-backs mire ourselves in thoughts of greater failures.  Frustrations may mount, but nothing defeats you unless you let it.  To close, I quote the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy in my hopes of Dr. King’s legacy:  “The work goes on, the cause endures, and the dream shall never die.”

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