He would be 90 years old this year. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the only African-American with a federal holiday named after him. Now the annual holiday seems as ordinary as Presidents' Day, but in fact, the MLK holiday has only been celebrated by all 50 states since the year 2000. Less than 20 years to honor a man whose leadership of the modern civil rights movement came to symbolize racial progress in America.
Every year around this time I hear people say, ‘If Rev. King were here today he’d be…' fill in the blank. Much of the time those guessing are filling in the blank based on an image of him softened by time and by media representations. His image, trapped in nostalgic amber as a kind of a kindly prophet who uttered wise words and turned the other cheek. And while he did turn the other cheek, because he fervently believed in nonviolent protest, King was an activist committed to a cause for which he was prepared to give his life, and indeed did.
Besides, there is no need to guess about where his priorities were. There is a rich repository of Dr. King’s writings and speeches in which he lays out the social justice work that needed to be done. It’s why I know he’d be saddened but not surprised at the current state of racial progress, and the state of economic hardships still suffered by communities of color. On the racial progress front, much is reminiscent of his time. Racial incidents, many violent, top the FBI’s documented report of hate crimes. Today there may be more reported random physical attacks on people living their lives. But then there is Rep. Steve King of Iowa and his racist comments. Irony in that last name? Some have described this King as the Bull Connor of these times. Connor was Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety who in 1963 ordered police to strike child marchers with dogs and water hoses. I’d like to think it’s progress that Iowa Rep. Steve King’s party punished him for his latest racist comments. "Latest" because the Iowa congressman is known for his racist rhetoric and in the past, Republicans have distanced themselves temporarily and remained silent. In case you missed it, the final straw happened when the congressman asked a New York Times interviewer, “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?" The huge blowback from his fellow Republicans and Republican leadership stripping him of his committee assignments was less about moral conscience and more about his political weakness —and about the party of President Trump acknowledging offensive language, albeit not from the president, who has done much to bring racist elements out from the shadows.
No, Dr. King would not be surprised that virulent racism like this is still prominent and persistent. Nor would he be deterred by it. Even as I am debilitated by the weight of the anger and hate, I know he would have found a way to fight it with optimism. The night before he died, he delivered a powerful message to the Memphis garbage workers, reminding them: “Only when it’s dark can you see the stars.” I have to say, on this MLK Day, it’s awfully dark right now. But I’m lifted up by the tiny, twinkly pinpricks in the night sky representing a new generation of folks committed to continuing Dr. King’s mission. The best way to honor his life and legacy.