Forty four years ago today, on April 4, 1968, Martin was killed. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King for those of us who have become removed from his life and legacy. Martin for those who remain attached to it.
As he lived, Martin was no hero to society. He was a challenge, a threat, a thorn in the side of the status quo. He was reviledby those he called out, and even disliked by some he spent his life trying to uplift — fellow African Americans. Martin saw into the depths of this nation’s soul and identified the ugliest aspects of it. If there was anything Martin taught us, it was not to fear calling a spade a spade, and to uphold an injunction found in the Quran – to stand for justice even if it meant standing witness against yourself.
So Wednesday, over four decades after his blood was spilt and he became a hero, we have to ask, what would Martin think of the condition of our country today? The night before he was killed, he joined in the struggle of sanitation workers in Memphis. Whose struggle would he join today?
Martin would not have rested in these many years. As he stood against our war in Vietnam, he would have stood against our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His concern for the racism against blacks would today be his concern for anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements. As he battled a system that disproportionately imprisoned young black men, today he would have fought against our black sites, Guantanamo, and indefinite detention. He would organize against the industrial prison complex, profiteers who gain by destroying the lives of men of color. His voice would be loudest against the PATRIOT Act and the NDAA. He would be calling us to action for the Trayvons and Shaimas of this nation. He would not tolerate a decision like Florence v. Burlington, which will most certainly impact minorities the greatest. In every way, he would be with the oppressed and the meek.
We celebrate the life and accomplishments of Martin by naming a holiday, streets, schools, and libraries after him. But our commemorations are, at best, superficial and facetious. At worse, they are an insult to his legacy. For a man of his character, Martin would find no comfort in false monuments to himself, when the heart of his mission was met with apathy. Racism is still a way of life here, and we continue to compromise our liberties under the guise of fighting terrorism. Complacency and divisive rhetoric has brought us to a place that Martin would have abhorred.
Forty years ago Martin said, “The nation is sick, trouble is in the land.” Today he would perhaps say the same. But today, though we have our first African American president, we have no Martin. If his life and death are to have lasting meaning, it can only be if we become vigilant in protecting the things he cherished – liberty, dignity, and equity for our fellow man. We cannot say we love Martin but shy away from becoming the challenge, the threat, the thorn in the side of the status quo. Right now Martin stands on the mountaintop, urging us forward and upward. How many of us will answer his call?