More so than on most holidays for which banks close and workers rest from their labors, those who mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day ought to be concerned as much with its forward trajectory as they are with its commemorative past. It ought to be a day that draws from each of its adherents two simple questions: “Where have we been?” and “What more can I do?”
The past is easily reviewed. King’s work and the thousands who joined him directly inspired better laws, practices and customs. He has been memorialized in print, film, song and sermon. His words stand as a testament to the cause of justice and the pursuit of racial equality. They highlight conditions as they were and remind Americans some six decades later of the need to confront and learn from an ugly history.
Yet, the past also makes clear the work that sits unfinished. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King famously wrote from a Birmingham jail. It’s the kind of uncomfortable truth he was so expert at preaching — all at once indicting the masses while yoking them together in pursuit of higher ways and better days.
And injustice still abounds. Even today, the majority of hate crimes — nearly 60% — are racially or ethnically motivated. A disturbing rise in white nationalism violates King’s hope of a nation in which its citizens “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And religious persecution continues to threaten the freedom to worship within the sanctuary of a synagogue, mosque, church or home.
Also significant to this year’s holiday is its proximity to one of the most divisive political moments in recent memory. Over the past few years, surveys have detected downward trends in the state of the country’s political discourse. Trust in institutions, especially those in Washington, is falling. Presidential primary elections are only days away, and it’s no small thing that members of Congress will return from their celebrations to weigh evidence in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
What, then, does this day ask of you?
In a recent social media post, Bernice King, daughter of the late Dr. King, wrote, “People often ask me, ‘What would he say were he alive today?’” She answered, “He’s said it. We’re just not listening.”
“He beckoned us far above civility,” she continued, and then listed the qualities of character he would have advocated for: “love, justice, true peace, mercy, beloved community.”
Despite being jailed, assaulted, battered and threatened, King never wavered in his commitment to true principles. “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline,” he told a crowd on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Emulating his drive for decency and virtue would be a good start to beginning the unfinished work of the day.
“Hate cannot drive out hate,” King once wrote, “only love can do that.” It’s another of his uncomfortable quips, calling to mind the radical Christian teaching to “love your enemies.” But in an era of hate and ill will, it no doubt is the answer to the question this day elicits.