Today, in remembrance, we should heed the words of Dr. King: “I will not yield to a politic of despair.”
Last year, during a sweltering summer day, my 13-year-old and I visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. As an African-American child growing up in the 1970s, I found Dr. King was more than the inspirational civil-rights leader we read about in books. He was the wrongly slain exemplar that my parents and community wanted us to pattern our lives after.
Since becoming a father, I felt a similar desire to share his legacy and teachings with my child. So, as we entered the memorial park, we strolled past two large marble slabs labeled the “mountain of despair” encountering a mammoth, 30-foot tall “stone of hope” from which King’s likeness had been hewed. After taking our selfies with the imposing figure in the background, we walked along the periphery of the surrounding park, talking and reflecting on each of the 14 famous or inspirational quotations that King made during his brief time on the national and world stage.
Of the many King quotations that we’ve heard over the years was the most resonant and provocative. It was not, “I have a dream,” or “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” or any of the other well-worn lines spoken in churches or schools or around the dinner table at this time of the year. I believe that the MLK quote that is most instructive to us in 2018 is “ … the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Reviving a metaphor first used by the 19th Century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, King spoke these words at the National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. He was speaking to a large audience gathered during a year of political and social upheaval, one of the most tumultuous in American history. Nearly 17,000 troops would die on the battlefields of Vietnam that year; social programs were being gutted to feed the war machine; college campuses were roiling and that very day, President Lyndon B. Johnson shocked the nation by announcing that he would not run for re-election.
In a wide-ranging speech which he titled “Remaining Awake During a Great Revolution,” King touched on other issues of concern in 1968 — militarism, income inequality and America’s moral standing among nations. He also spoke of racism: “ … spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle, the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly — to get rid of the disease of racism.”
King’s words are similarly instructive to us in 2018 as they were to those who heard him in 1968. We have just endured a year similar to 1968, when many of the issues of King’s time remain unaddressed and growing more pernicious. Many of us have despaired as we observe the current political morass, growing more odious and toxic by the day. We’ve watched a revival of blatant white supremacy in Charlottesville, the corruption of our cherished institutions, rampant sexual assault and a fraying of our social fabric. And many of us may have begun to wonder about the direction of King’s moral arc. But as King instructed back in 1968, we must not yield.
We must participate in political processes at the local, state and national levels, reforming them through our presence and involvement. We must cast informed ballots and hold our elected representatives accountable. We must labor in our schools and neighborhoods and resist the instinct to turn our eyes away from our collective needs. We must listen to the voices of society’s victims, and then actively move them, and ourselves, toward justice.
Concluding his remarks by anticipating the current state of affairs as well as the difficult work that lies ahead, King stated “I will not yield to a politic of despair.” As we know, King was assassinated less than a week after his speech at the National Cathedral. But his words and deeds live on. So, on this day of remembrance, as we think about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., we must renew our efforts to climb over our mountains of despair so that the “moral arc” of our universe does truly bend toward justice.