By James C. Harrington
Director, Texas Civil Rights Project
As a civil rights advocate and lawyer, I always find the annual celebration of the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday both a good event and a disconcerting one. It is good that the nation has given official recognition to a person of color who lived and gave his life for the cause of justice and equality, seeking to undue centuries of racial oppression.
It’s also a discouraging day because ironically our society actually uses this holiday of festivities to smother Dr. King’s moral challenge to us. We have the uncanny ability to bury the contradictions and inequities that prophetic leaders like Dr. King’s raise up. It’s easier for us to play recordings of his great speeches years ago and to parade through town than to take to heart the actual message he would bring were he still alive. We don’t want to accept that challenge because it makes us as uncomfortable as it did when Dr. King was alive – and it would entail difficult and hard work on our part.
Based on how he lived and the views he expressed, there is no doubt Dr. King would be leading marches against the war in Iraq, as he did during the Vietnam war. He would be in the streets, demonstrating against the unconscionable inequities in our educational system that still discriminates against minority children and effectively segregates them. Dr. King would be leading demonstrations in the struggle to extend health care to poor Americans. And is there any doubt he would be in our face about the increasingly polarized economic system that makes the rich even wealthier at the expense of poor, minority, and middle class Americans? Nor would Dr. King tolerate the demonization of undocumented immigrants whose unfortunate fate is to be victims of an economic dislocation caused by NAFTA and this country’s trade policies.
We forget how unpopular Dr. King was near the end of his life, especially as he turned his focus toward issues of war and poverty in this country, and not just segregation. We would rather put up a statue of him or name a school in his honor that publicly debate the profound questions of social justice and morality he raised.
The same has happened with respect to César Chávez, whose birthday is a state holiday in California. The University of Texas recently dedicated a statue of him, and, judging from the majority of speeches, the audience would have thought he was an education pioneer. Few speakers noted that, first and foremost, César Chávez fought to raise wages and change working conditions by organizing a union. He steadfastly rejected efforts to make him something other than a union leader. Yet, that is precisely what we have done; that’s easier than facing the reality of a subclass of workers who receive a pathetic pittance for laboring hard in America’s fields of plenty.
We cannot let memorial holidays, dedicated schools, or specially-named streets flatten the contradictions that prophetic voices like Dr. King lift up in our society between the ideals we profess and how we actually live them out. We need their vision to shape our future.
To paraphrase labor singer Joe Hill, I am sure Dr. King’s message to us for the day set aside to commemorate him would be, “don’t celebrate, organize.” That would honor his memory better than anything else we could do.
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The Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation, promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas.