The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
- MLK Jr. Strength to Love
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech. President Obama commemorated the occasion with a speech of his own – not as rousing, spiritual, or inspirational as King’s speech, but that’s a big task to live up to so we can’t blame him for that. Obama’s speech was full of emotional, motivational, and proud moments. It was also full of jabs at conservative politicians and hints at possible policy actions (education, health care, job creation, etc.). It was nice, I thought, that he recognized not just King, but also those thousands of people who went out of their way to march and show the rest of the US that the tide of injustice was turning. It’s a very moving thing to think about.
Meanwhile, warships armed with cruise missiles descend upon Syria at Obama’s command. MLK promoted non-violence. He opposed the Vietnam war. And now, as we celebrate this momentous achievement of human beings coming together to resist oppression and injustice, we stand again on the brink of violence and, potentially, war. It is a tragedy that so many have been killed in that civil war, but it would be a greater tragedy if more lives were lost in a fight that we have no legal or moral basis to call our own.
Meanwhile, massive computers at the NSA are monitoring our communications and collecting sensitive information that can be used against us – all under the authorization of a secret court. I don’t fear right-wing fascism – the kind that is born of resentment and tries desperately to cling to a past that can never again exist. I fear the fascism that has no party and no political allegiance. I fear the fascism that hides itself behind an either/or logic – either we let them monitor our communications or we are attacked by terrorists.
Meanwhile, corporations and their minions reap enormous profits while the rest of us continue to suffer under the weight of recession and a lack of employment. King stood for economic justice as well as racial justice. For him, the fight against poverty was a fight that could raise the lives of everyone out of hardship and oppression. But his approach to economic justice was not that of the market, which has been the defining approach for both Democrats and Republicans since the 1970s (in fact, Obama’s call for more jobs and improving the tech sector in yesterday’s speech was very much about market logic). King called for a guaranteed income tied to the median income. Such an approach would be unheard of today!
All of these issues (and more) are ones we face time and again. These are the nuts and bolts of struggle – not visionary speeches. The question is how will we deal with them. Will we face them with the same logic that we’ve used in the past? The same logic that has failed us time and again? Or will we face them with the courage and faith to try something new – to take a risk and make a difference? This is where vision plays an important role. King inspired everyone to look beyond the future that seemed given. He called for us to look to that future that seemed impossible, to have faith in the struggle, and to keep on marching – past the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and into our everyday lives. We honor King and the thousands of people who marched that day by not giving in to the logic that is given to us – by seeking a different vision and struggling to make that vision, however impossible, come to be. Let’s take a look, see what challenges we face, and take the chance to make a difference.