Apart from attending the Baltimore city parade, it was hard to find meaningful Martin Luther King Day community activities to participate in on Monday.
Fortunately, I discovered the special program at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum where my daughter, son-in-law and I spent 2 hours. We heard the delightful “In Process” Singers perform movement songs and learned important lessons from the museum’s exhibits.
We were among the few white folks there but the friendly mix of visitors cut across all ages. Service in Dr. King’s honor is the most meaningful gesture any of us can make as service is how he wished to be remembered. Yet it strikes me that half a century away from the transformative events that challenged our nation’s entrenched racial inequalities we need history lessons more than service. We have a generation of citizens who have no memory of the movement or the reasons for its existence.
As all of us confront the challenges of Ferguson, racial biases in the justice system and continuing racism in America, this new generation of citizens has no wisdom to draw upon, and few role models to inspire them. All many of them know about Dr. King is that he is the reason for a day off from school and he gave the “I have a dream,” speech which his heirs squabble over along with the rest of his magnificent legacy.
They hear about the film “Selma,” and as director Ava DuVernay has said, they think it is about a woman named Selma. This generation of youth are shocked to learn that Dr. King died at 39 and that many of the most vibrant leaders in the movement were far younger than he. They know nothing of the whites who joined the movement in the deep south or the leadership of President Johnson in passing the key federal legislation.
We of the tweets , facebook posts and instagram era cannot begin to fathom the depth of organizing: the hundreds of thousands of face to face meetings, speeches and conversations needed to manage the integration of our schools and universities, the protest marches, bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom rides, the march on Washington. They are stunned when confronted with the countless sacrifices, profound courage, deep faith and political maneuvering and determination that resulted in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act that created the integrated world they take for granted today.
Our social action which allows us to put a screen and a thumb between ourselves and our actions may start change but will never secure it. Dr King could not have envisioned the tools we possess today to connect and communicate but he taught us that thumbs do not substitute for feet and screens cannot be the proxy for authentic human interactions. Technology requires power, but only people can demand justice. We need to understand who we have been before we can dream of who we can be. Dr. King and the movement he led gives us boundless opportunities to celebrate the us in the United States of America. When we fall short of the aspirations of our foundational principles, they should continue to inspire us to make good on their promise. We are obliged. They are, as Dr. King suggested, “the promissory note” on which our America defaults.