What, to White and Black Americans, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

Selma, Ala. (Credit: Jim Young/Reuters)
Selma, Ala. (Credit: Jim Young/Reuters)

by Chris Lebron

I am very honored to be addressing you here today, though it is not without some trepidation.

You see, the distance between where I grew up, where I come from in the world, and where many of you sit is significant. That I am where I am in the world sometimes surprises me. So I consider it an especially pressing duty to be mindful of my journey; and, when possible, to remind others that such a journey is just that for some of us — a setting out without a clear sense that we will get where we intend to go.

Representing the point of view that I do — as a brown American from a lower-class background, with the good fortune today to walk the halls of one of America’s most elite institutions as a teacher of philosophy — Martin Luther King Jr. Day is taken to represent a triumph. But here is an uncomfortable truth: It is a triumph of acceptable minimums rather than full respect for those who continue to wait for Dr. King’s dream to become reality.

My purpose is to challenge the common belief that honoring of Martin Luther King Jr. means the same thing to all Americans. Recalling the sense of disconnect expressed by Frederick Douglass in his speech “What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” — between himself as a former slave and his white audience — I want to say there is also some distance between black and white Americans today, between “you” and “I,” as it were, and that this day has increasingly become “yours,” not mine.

That may seem narrow or bitter. You may argue that the holiday has taken greater hold in the nation over time. Who today questions the validity of this holiday? Many of us have been given a day off work to reflect on it. A blockbuster Hollywood movie about Dr. King’s role in one of the civil rights movement’s greatest victories is playing in theaters nationwide. Clothes, furniture, bedding and cars are on sale to honor the man. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems, now belongs to more of the nation than ever before.

But I maintain that it does not fully belong in the most profound ways to many Americans, and to some of them, it does not belong at all.

I think it goes without question that not only has the idea of a post-racial America proven to be a myth, but that racial inequality remains a tragic mark on the character of this otherwise great nation — a nation founded on respect not only for what persons hope to accomplish in life but for what they are: humans owed rights, liberty and respect because of their humanity. The equal recognition of humanity has only intermittently taken hold with respect to black lives. The closeness of Emmett Till and Eric Garner attest to that.

This was Dr. King’s great struggle in his life. While he indeed fought for the security of a full schedule of rights for black Americans, he was in fact fighting for something greater and more difficult to articulate — the hope that white Americans could extend a hand of brotherly and sisterly love to blacks. The mark of true love, for Dr. King, was to embrace strangers as familiars, and conversely, to deny that blacks’ humanity was a new and strange thing. There is hope in the thought that Dr. King is fervently embraced by so many Americans today, and there is consolation that his struggle gave us the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

My purpose today, however, is to reflect on the nature of this embrace. When you celebrate Dr. King, what are you cheering? Do you cheer the greatness of a man who fully knew his journey’s destination was insecure? The greatness of a man who paid the ultimate price so that my son could vote and sit in class alongside your children? If so, I am happy to join you. Do you celebrate his struggle as a resounding success that ushered in a new age of race relations? Do you intend to show appreciation for the notion that he helped us move past a difficult moment in American history? If so, then I cannot join you. And I fear that I observe the tendency to celebrate not so much the man but the hope that claiming him for all Americans exculpates us from the sins of inhumanity that is racial marginalization.

To say today that racial inequality is wrong is easy. Anyone can say it, and, in fact, most people do. It is true, there was a time when to pronounce on the equality of all men and women, regardless of color, was not only disallowed but also treacherous territory, as Dr. King learned. But it is important to note that as truly great a person as Dr. King was, he was not the only person to face the danger that came with insisting on social justice. Nor were blacks as a group the only group to face that danger. As has been known, and as we are being reminded with the film “Selma,” white Americans were key to the success of Dr. King’s movement, and some paid an equally heavy price.

The actions of these Americans were deeply honorable, for they faced down the expectation that social power imposes upon us at all times — to stay the course rather than to agitate for change; to take comfort in small moral affirmations in the presence of our peers rather than to challenge the staid beliefs of the privileged. The actions of these Americans serve to remind us that there is hope in the ideas of humanity and compassion, but that without it, America threatens to be false to its past, to its present, leaving our future insecure.

These words might sound anachronistic, as if this were 1955, not 2015. In 1962, Dr. King remarked in his speech “The Case Against ‘Tokenism’” that racial justice was an idea whose time had come. He wrote: “The issue is not whether segregation and discrimination will be eliminated but how they will pass from the scene.”

Dr. King’s conviction seems prescient as the Civil Rights Act remained two years away. But one wonders what to make of this conviction today as segregation not only remains alive and well in many parts of America’s neighborhoods and schools, but is also in some cases worsening. One wonders what to make of the claim that discrimination will soon be a thing of the past when in the 21stcentury our best researchers have shown that a black individual with an “ethnic” sounding name faces poorer chances of being invited for a job interview than a white American even if the two résumés are identical. Yet anyone who thinks this is a shortcoming on Dr. King’s part fails to employ the better parts of his or her critical judgment.

From Dr. King’s perspective his faith — and that’s what is was, faith — was in ways warranted: He watched a movement to claim for blacks equal status grow into one of American history’s most momentous movements and stand down centuries of white supremacy. Though he faced headwinds, he also perceived that the promised land was at least in sight. No — the failing is not his. The fact that 53 years later neither segregation nor discrimination have been eliminated indicates the eagerness with which white Americans have adopted the idea that securing racial justice was a matter of the passing of a law and the martyrdom of a great man. But this clearly will not do.

During the days of slavery one could identify a person analogous to the swine-drover in the meat market. This person — we might call him a man-drover — rather than ushering pigs to market to be sold as a transferable commodity, did so with blacks. It goes without question that this treatment was inhumane. It made blacks into something less than human, things to be traded as objects to fuel economic necessity.

You may think that these days are long past but consider the case of Ferguson, Mo., — a city of 21,135 people, predominantly black, that served 32,975 arrest warrants for nonviolent offenses in 2013. This remarkable level of surveillance and interdiction incidentally generated for Ferguson more than $2.5 million in revenue from fines and court fees — the city’s second largest source of revenue. I ask you, what is this except the return of the drover in the mask of state legitimacy? In a nation where blacks possess only on average a dime of wealth for every dollar of white wealth, how is this reclamation of scarce resources anything but the continuation of oppression by other means, the reduction of blacks to instruments of economic necessity and exploitation?

A life of civic goodness is always near enough, but we must often stretch to fully grasp it.

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If this does not convince you, listen to the audio track of Eric Garner’s last words. In a tragic sense, his plea — “I can’t breathe” — is the soundtrack of black life under conditions of deep unfairness and disregard: When we use the breath we have to ask for the rights and respect that ought to be ours, we have little breath to accomplish much else. Everyday life becomes the double struggle of working not only for what we need but also for securing that to which we are entitled in any case. Dr. King may have seen the promised land, but we appear to be anchored off its coast.

What can get us on course? What can unmoor us from our current predicament toward the promise of genuine American freedom for all? Dr. King once said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but that it bends toward justice. I am concerned that his statement is sometimes taken to hold a view of historical necessity — that oppression has a shelf life, that marginalization has an expiration date.

Despite his religious convictions, Dr. King’s life was marked by the relationship between moral sense and action. The arc of the moral universe is long but bends only where the actions of good and brave people put to shame and rest the beliefs of the morally lazy and untoward. That is why moral life is work, and that is why racial justice is hard to secure. The arc of the moral universe is no more predetermined than is our will to show gratitude for an act of kindness. A life of civic goodness is always near enough, but we must often stretch to fully grasp it — to merely see it and praise it from the comfort of self-congratulatory appreciation is empty and a disappointment to better moral sensibilities.

I would have greatly preferred to present thoughts more joyous than these, but joy in a time of injustice is a very great luxury, one indulged in by either the willfully blind or the callously indifferent. The rest of us must come to terms with what we face and where we are headed. It is as Dr. King says: The arc of the moral universe is long; and it does bend where dissatisfied courage triumphs over privileged contentment. Daily I pray for the courage to do my small part to bend the arc and bring us into right relationship with the good and the just. It is my duty. But it is not mine alone.

If this holiday is to someday belong to all of us, then you must also bear the burden. The great victory comes then: When the burden is shared, so then is the aspiration to show one another genuine love that Dr. King exhorted us to express. So then will his day become both yours and mine as he would have wished. And that is cause for celebration.

This essay is adapted from the transcript of a speech given by the author to the Greenwich, Conn., YWCA on Jan. 15, 2015.

SOURCE: The New York Times

Chris Lebron is an assistant professor of African-American studies and philosophy at Yale University and the author of “The Color Of Our Shame: Race and Justice in our Time.


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