Last weekend we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and even though I was unable to attend the convocation that bears his name, I tried to take some time to reflect on King’s legacy and how we collectively discuss the work that remains.
In 1964, a year after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, King published the book “Why We Can’t Wait.” I recently read it for the first time. It remains as poignant and powerful today as it must have been when it was first released, detailing the story that led to King’s incarceration for civil disobedience, to him writing “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” to how the mass mobilization of Birmingham’s black population brought their notorious segregationist mayor Bull Connor to the negotiating table with the civil rights activists.
But the book also details the importance of how King envisioned the protests of 1963 as the first phase of a social revolution that would sweep away injustice and inequity. He called for a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged that would strive to end both social and economic injustice. He made the case for reparations. He envisioned a “Negro-Labor” electoral coalition between the white and black working class, which he felt would be politically unstoppable. He even hoped that non-violence could become both a tactic and a philosophy for global nuclear disarmament.
Throughout all of this was the idea that there was no better time to wait for change; the time is now. We do not need to wait for our freedom; we need simply to assert it.
It’s been 55 years since then, and unfortunately, we are still far off from the world King imagined. The median black-white wealth gap has actually expanded since the 1960s. Black educational achievement has languished for decades. Jim Crow-era segregation has given way to a subtler “New Jim Crow” in mass incarceration. Violence from gangs and the police continues to tear communities of color apart. Black-majority cities buckle under the strain of economic austerity forced on them by white-majority states that leave social services underfunded.
Meanwhile, many of our cities have actually become more racially segregated in the decades since the Civil Rights Movement.
I doubt King would be proud of how his name has been fetishized and weaponized to cover up the hard work that is still needed to rectify old wrongs. We can rename buildings and streets after him, declare his birthday a holiday and hold a convocation every year in his honor, but none of that should ever be understood as an acceptable alternative to continuing his legacy of combating systemic injustice.
What would King make of our current system of mass incarceration or of our collection of private prisons that dot the nation? What would King make of our student debt crisis, which is increasingly making the sort of humanities education that he received harder and harder to achieve for those among us with the fewest opportunities and resources? What would King, a pacifist, make of the endless wars we are waging in the Middle East, the increasingly militarized police forces that patrol our streets and the heinous treatment of people at our border?
These questions should be on our minds as we reflect on what King’s birthday should mean for our values. The struggle to combat injustice has never stopped, but it certainly has taken a backseat to many in favor of superficial actions that simply resemble justice. Now, more than ever, we must rally to the cry that we cannot, and will not, wait for our freedom.
We will assert it, now.
Viral Mistry is a fourth-year biology and cognitive science double major who is minoring in chemistry, history and philosophy. He wears many figurative hats around campus, but if you ever see him, you can guarantee he’d rather be in bed reading a good book.