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On MLK JR. and the Legacy We Need Today

Today my home country will have the opportunity to celebrate the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. This great man devoted his all to the cause of equality. Every speech and march was a crusade against tyranny. His galvanized thousands upon millions of people to come together to protest against the unjust nature of American society.

If only he could be here now…

At a time when my own so-called (but not well regarded) President calls less fortunate countries “shitholes,” enacted a Muslim Ban against Islamic peoples from Middle Eastern nations, and continuously badgers for a border wall, I wish at times we had another Martin Luther King Jr. to step up and orate the world into seeing how divisive and abhorrent racism truly is.

“I Have A Dream” is the speech many people know and love. The countless quotes pulled from it will be the main sound bites for the news features, and people will point to it as the leading example of the message Martin Luther King Jr. wanted us to learn.

But that’s oddly enough not the speech that stuck with me.

My favorite Martin Luther King Jr. speech is obscure, to say the least. It’s actually not even supposed to be a civil rights speech, but instead an acceptance letter for an honorary doctorate. For some reason, this one particular part of it resonates with me (underlined for emphasis):

As you well know, racism is a reality in many sections of our world today. Racism is still the coloured man’s burden and the white man’s shame. And the world will never rise to its full moral or political or even social maturity until racism is totally eradicated. Racism is exactly what it says. It is a myth of the inferior race; it is the notion that a particular race is worthless and degradated innately and the tragedy of racism is that it is based not on an empirical generalisation but on an ontological affirmation. It is the idea that the very being of a people is inferior.

I wish more people could read those lines. We all know the iconic lines of, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'” But to lay out what racism at its core really is, as well as put the shame where it belongs is just as important as the dream. It’s pointing out the root of the problem, and demanding action.

Racism must be eradicated, but how?

This speech actually continues on to talk about it:

Well, it may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behaviour can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can restrain him from lynching me; and I think that is pretty important also. And so, while the law may not change the hearts of men, it does change the habits of men if it is vigorously enforced, and through changes in habits, pretty soon attitudinal changes will take place and even the heart may be changed in the process.

Changes in law, changes in the government, changes from the top to demand that the bottom obey these laws, must be just and equal. Right now, I don’t believe my government wants equality, but instead wants to encourage that “myth of an inferior race.” The administration in the White House feels no shame in its desire to rip apart families with ICE and immigration, in threatening to take away the dreams of DACA recipients, in lambasting NFL players for taking a knee (an act Martin Luther King Jr. would’ve surely been proud of, non-violent and attention getting as it is), and the list can just go on and on.

We cannot stay silent when we see injustice, for that is how it wins. Even if all we do is call out racist behavior when we see it, it’s a step in the right direction. Call your representatives, write letters, get yourself open and vocal.

Martin Luther King Jr. wanted a world of mutual understanding and respect between white and black people, but we white people must make ourselves worthy of that respect. Until then, we can carry this shame.