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MLK Day of Remembrance and Renewal

“We need a powerful sense of determination to banish the ugly blemish of racism scarring the image of America. We can, of course, try to temporize, negotiate small, inadequate changes and prolong the timetable of freedom in the hope that the narcotics of delay will dull the pain of progress. We can try, but we shall certainly fail. The shape of the world will not permit us the luxury of gradualism and procrastination. Not only is it immoral, it will not will not work because it retards the progress not only of the Negro, but of the nation as a whole.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait (1964)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned these words about 54 years ago - and they are as true now as they were then. We have yet to wrap our heads around the damage done by slavery and the tragic waste of 100 years that saw its demise and replacement by other sinister forms of racial oppression. And the failure to address this has indeed held back not just “the progress of the Negro, but of the nation as a whole.” True equality eludes us: equality that would be borne out in the visible form of all people having equal opportunity, equal access to education, equal access to housing and health care, equal access to work, and equal outcomes for equal efforts.

In the midst of the civil rights struggles, when King was admonished by supposedly sympathetic people for asking for too much, too fast, he made a comment to the effect that that “they” want “us” to wait another forty years. When I saw that forty-year reference I sat back and added 40 years to 1965 and thought how much he underestimated the resistance to coming to terms with our history and acting decisively to unravel the mess that America’s dominant culture made of race relations and all that flows from those relations. Poverty, low levels of education, inadequate housing, and unequal treatment by the law and other institutions continues to persist - certainly more in some places than others, but it persists. And even in Montgomery County today, you could tell a story of two counties (if you wanted to).

I listened to our County Executive, Ike Leggett, speak today. He ended with a very moving story, which I could not do justice to if I tried to repeat it, but the essence is worth repeating as we ponder this day and what we should be doing in our work to honor it. He said that we cannot wait for Dr. King to walk through a door and lead another March on Washington or another sanitation workers strike, or to lead us to the Capitol itself and demand the social and economic justice that we need. It will not happen. It cannot happen. Dr. King, the man, is no more. We either commit to finishing the unfinished work or it will continue to remain unfinished. If we talk about change being too fast, too hard, and too uncomfortable, what we will surely get is NOT change. If we talk of incrementalism, what we’re really saying is that it will take another 50 years or more before the job we have to do is done - and I doubt that will be long enough.

So on this day of remembrance for Dr. King, the real question is whether or not we’re willing to commit ourselves to the work. He said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I would add to that that if the arc bends toward justice, it is only because the people bend it that way. I’m an optimist in that I do think that if you observe the arc, it does appear to bend that way over the long run (with some blips along the way, like in our present moment in time). But we cannot assume that we will simply resume a path toward justice unless we ourselves set out on that path. And that is what I hope this day means for those of us who are honoring it: follow that path and bend that arc toward justice.

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