I was born into a world made possible in large part because of Martin Luther King Jr. We studied him in elementary and high school as a revered figure, beset by the expectations he helped create for us. Over time, I've slowly come to realize why my debt to him is larger than I'd realized. He did not simply march, protest, and speak for the liberation of Black folks, he initiated a sea change in the way that we, as a nation, perceive ourselves.
Black people had always been striving for racial equality. But Martin Luther King Jr. made it possible to want equality from America. We're still striving for that today. So as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. day on January 15 — especially with a hate monger in the White House — I'd like to ask Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a few questions about his sacrifice and about his goals. Things that, in our crazy world, might inspire us today — and I'd like to try and explain why.
"How did you know you could change the world?"
These days, it's tougher than ever to think you can put a dent in anything. Our generation is under siege. Between student loan debt, the great recession, and our new President, everything seems to be upside down. Fifty-five years after you uttered the words "I have a dream," people still suspect police are shooting unarmed people solely because of their skin color. And, if Ferguson is any indication, inequality is still bundled with our democracy in sneaky ways.
Maybe you thought you had to change the world. Maybe it wasn't a question of if, but when. Maybe that should be how we think about the world today.
Did you know you'd have to sacrifice everything?
You sacrificed a decent life with a wife and your children. You sacrificed not being watched by the FBI or being beaten by police officers. You sacrificed not having to be mauled by dogs or shot by water cannons. You did all that because you believed in the power of America and because of your faith.
How did you have that kind of faith in that kind of situation? How can we have faith now? If you were here now, with the world being threatened with nuclear war, how would you hope to help bring us back from the ledge? How can we? Maybe you'd say this: "I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear."
"How did you know you could win over your detractors?"
Malcolm X called you all kinds of names and so did others. Some thought you'd betrayed yourself and your people. And yet you marched on, preaching non-violence despite the fact that you everywhere around you was violence. How did you know that even Malcolm would begin to change his mind? How did you know that, even after Kennedy's assassination, there was hope for you and us?
Maybe you'd say that all people could be radically changed by hope. Maybe you'd say that it's obvious that violence is not an answer. And maybe you'd be right.
"Did you know you'd have to die?"
I've thought about this one a lot. You said in speeches you weren't concerned about "an early death." Yet, I wonder, in your heart of hearts, did you know it would have to come to that? You'd already been stabbed once so severely, the word was you'd have died had you sneezed.
I'll let the man speak for himself in that regard.
"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now,” Dr. King said as he recited the speech now known as "On The Mountaintop." “I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”
So he did know; yet he persisted. Will we, too, have to risk our lives to help save a nation and ourselves? Will our marching and calling and wrangling of our representatives actually make a difference?
Throughout our nations history, we've grown only when were challenged by some kind of impossible stimulus to come together. For Dr. King, that was the violence and oppression people lived under in the southern United States. For us, it's the division that we see all over our timelines and social media; in our own families and communities. You can only hope that we'll come together the way they did back then. And, if anything can get us there, it's remembering the courage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and everyone else involved in the Civil Rights Movement.