The next week will be momentous for our country as we recognize a monumental public figure who challenged the U.S. government and society to create the more perfect union that the Constitution demands. On Monday, January 16, the nation remembered Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the official holiday that commemorates his legacy. Notably, too, on Friday, January 20, we will mark the end the President Barack Obama’s two-terms as the first African American president, and begin the presidency of Donald Trump.
Many citizens find this transition in U.S. presidential leadership more portentous than promising and have mobilized multiple demonstrations, not in celebration, but in protest and anxiety that the incoming administration portends to undo the measured progress has been made to realize the constitutional promise. These bookended events should give us great pause to think deeply about what – and perhaps even more important, who – is America, and the continuing relevance of Dr. King’s vision in answering these questions.
In my work as co-director of the Cold Case Justice Initiative at Syracuse University College of Law, I am intimately involved in the racial and social dynamics of the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, in which the U.S. was steeped in discord and violence, as Black people sought full civil rights and were frequently met with hostility and death. Many victims of the violence of this era remain unidentified, cases remain unsolved, and perpetrators remain unpunished. For these reasons, the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act was passed by the last Congress and signed by President Obama to continue to seek justice in these cases. These earlier cases continue to resonate in the present as the calls for justice bellow in the spate of racially motivated killings by law enforcement and private actors of mostly unarmed Black and Brown people.
The demand for justice in these circumstances – then and now – is reflected in Dr. King’s critical statement, “Why We Can’t Wait,” and his critical question, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” During his own time, Dr. King understood that the burgeoning Black Power Movement and impatience and dissatisfaction with non-violent practice was in response to societal intransigence and impunity of state and private violations of Black people’s rights and safety. He knew that Black lives mattered and that Black rage was justified. ”It cannot be taken for granted that Negroes will adhere to nonviolence under any and all conditions,” he stated. As Dr. King further recognized, “Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention. There is no other answer.” In other words, Dr. King, admonished American society, “No justice. No peace.” While he was implacably committed to nonviolent resistance, he found, “It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be…Mass civil disobedience can use rage as a constructive and creative force.”
The U.S. Department of Justice just released a damning report of longstanding institutional racial violence by the Chicago Police Department against mostly Black persons in that city – often lethal. The City of Baltimore recently entered a consent decree with DOJ regarding systemic police violence and abuses along the same lines. Dr. King would have recognized these psychic, physical, and legal harms at the hand of the state and the uprisings they generated.
When King was asked about the 1967 riots in Newark, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Memphis, he responded, “In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And America has failed to hear that the promises of justice and equality have not been met.” In today’s environment, Ferguson, Dallas, Baltimore, Chicago…all would be known to Dr. King.
The President-elect campaigned on a platform that was divisive; one that ridiculed and vilified society’s most vulnerable people. Women were singled out for gross debasement in public discourse and behavior that the candidate sought to minimize. Immigrants and undocumented workers were singled out as criminals and leeches.
LGBTQ communities, Muslims, disabled people and other marginalized populations question whether the destructive tenor and actions of the incoming administration augur greater discrimination and violation of rights. Thus far, the President-Elect has evinced a remarkable lack of conciliation overtures to bring the nation together and reassure that the American ideals of equal rights, equal justice, and equal value of all persons will be observed. As we pause to remember Dr. King, these contrasting visions of America and American values could not be starker.
Dr. King also exhorted the country to “make America great.” This was the meaning of the “Dream” speech, given on the one-hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Dr. King urged the country to end the crippling inequality that affected people across racial, geographical, and economic divides. He sought unity, commonality, and appreciation of each other’s unique struggles for justice and inclusion.
Dr. King accepted the Nobel Peace Award in 1964 “with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.” He found justice wounded and wanting, but declared, “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” For King, it was an unshakable faith that gave him courage to go on “to face the uncertainties of the future.” Dr. King was motivated by faith, conscience, selflessness and humility. He believed that we could be better, individually and collectively as a nation. His as yet unfulfilled vision of a just and equal society is one in which greatness is measured by what we give, not by what we take. By serving, not by being served. And by love, for all people.
Dr. King’s vision was uplifting and he believed in protest as ennobling. As we enter into this uncertain future, we should remember that we are stronger when we are together. So, as we look toward a future that seems fraught with divisiveness and shameful behavior, we must ask what and who is America? We must maintain the audacity of hope.