What Would MLK Say?
2021 is here. In practical terms, not much changed when the clock struck midnight at the close of the 31st of December, 2020, but being able to finally say "good riddance" to 2020 is, at the very least, a psychological crutch most of us sorely needed. The new year is usually a time to take stock and reflect on our journeys thus far, and that is especially true of this year. Almost everybody has lost something, whether it was a loved one to an awful disease that seemingly materialized out of thin air, a livelihood, or a year at school. And perhaps none have lost more than the average American. The United States has borne the worst of the pandemic in terms of loss of life, seen widespread economic distress, been through one political crisis after another, and once again, has come under fire for racial injustice. So as January 18th, 2021 rolls around, there is plenty for everyone to think about, and perhaps ask:
"What would MLK say?"
Martin Luther King Jr., of course, needs very little by way of an introduction, whether in the United States or elsewhere. Alongside India's Mohandas Gandhi (better known as Mahatma Gandhi), Dr. King pioneered a form of protest and activism that left detractors flabbergasted, made America a more equitable place than it had ever been, won dignity for African-Americans, and perhaps most importantly, became a symbol of strength and endurance to inspire billions. Dr. King remains proof that one person can indeed change the world for the better, and can inspire us to do better. To be better. He taught us that the highest glory is not necessarily found in climbing the tallest mountain or winning the bloodiest battle. Above all, perhaps, he taught us to place empathy and respect for our fellow human beings at the core of who we are.
Dr. King lived in a rough and uncertain time himself. Born and raised in a country where he and his kind were discriminated against merely on the basis of skin pigmentation, where for centuries black people had been denied the very values that the nation was founded upon. It would have been all too easy to lose oneself to despair, or to lash out in anger, or to respond to hate with hate, but somebody had to break that cycle. Dr. King’s message today is as relevant as it was in the 1963. To be compassionate is not to be weak and no end is such that would justify immoral means. In a life replete with moments worth retelling a thousand times, there is perhaps one scene from Dr. King’s life that towers over all others. I am, of course, referring to the speech he delivered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963.
It is difficult to please a crowd of 250,000, and Dr. King sensed that he had been failing when he abandoned his pre-written notes, urged on by singer Mahalia Jackson to tell them about the “dream”, following which Martin Luther King Jr. described that dream. A description both chilling and beautiful, capable of moving the soul, not just of an individual, but of a nation. It was not the first great speech of history and likely not the last, but few have made the kind of impact with the spoken word that Dr. King made that day. It was not just a speech that won him a Nobel Prize, or warmed the hearts of millions, or gave strength to the many activists who endured physical, mental and emotional abuse to make America a kinder place. The very next year, it helped translate into direct action with the passage of The Civil Rights Act, 1964, perhaps the most consequential domestic legislation passed in the United States since the 14th amendment nearly a century ago, proving that the pen is indeed mightier than sword.
A view of the Washington Monument on 28th August, 1963 when MLK delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech.
2020 was a difficult year. More so than any that I can recall in my relatively short life. But as another titan of the 20th century once taught us, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity”. World War II, for example, was devastating. But from the embers of that disaster, we were able to build a more interconnected and peaceful world than ever before. MLK understood this principle and endorsed it, urging people to never give up hope, to continue to strive no matter what. So what would MLK say in January 2021? I suspect he might have reminded us all that life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’. The pandemic has affected us all, but its effects on the poor and marginalized have been markedly worse. Most of us have been watching helplessly as we seem to be marching backwards in time, undoing all our recent gains in wiping poverty off the face of the Earth. And accompanied by this backward slide has been a reemergence of an uglier strain of competitive nationalism, as nations bicker over who is responsible for the transmission of covid-19, and now over who can grab as many doses vaccines as fast as possible. Ultimately, such competition is pointless, since the virus will find its way back so long as a covid-19 epidemic is raging anywhere in the world. What would MLK say? Now, more than ever, We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.