One day every year, the American people remember the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and every year, “I Have a Dream” is recited like a prayer whispered before bed. This year’s MLK Day felt sobering and tense and reminded me there is work to be done yet as we enter a new presidential administration.
To those who say racism and systemic hatred of black and brown bodies was rekindled by a Trump administration, I say it has always been fuming. To those who say brutality and inequality are issues already dealt with, I say they have only ever been tolerated. To those who say our country’s division is a symptom of bi-partisanship, I say it is the illness. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is more than his expression of what he hoped his country will be; it outlines how this dream can become a reality.
“This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off … Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of [systemic] segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustices to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
This speech is powerful not because of King’s repetition of the hopeful “I Have a Dream” — although it is undoubtedly inspirational — it’s powerful because he warns against overlooking the urgency of the movement.
“Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual …[and] the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.”
We are witnessing the result of a nation returned to usual business. We are experiencing the illness of division because we as a nation allowed ourselves to fall back to a systemically broken norm.
The similarities between the civil rights movement then and the social justice movement now are too familiar. The transition from peaceful protests to looting, to rioting to brutal police enforcement is not so different from the protests of the 60s, and in so many ways reflects the reality that social injustices and racial inequalities have always lingered beneath the surface.
The difference now is marginalized groups through the use of technology and social media platforms are able to unite a larger community of like-minded and oppressed communities, allowing them to take agency into their own hands.
In June, Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR’s Code Switch, said “We can’t stay at home anymore. And if we did, what kind of life does that mean we’d have if we didn’t reject the way we’re being treated now?”
In essence, Bates is referring to a life lived in tolerance. Take, for example, the black mother who tells her son don’t walk around with your hands in your pocket or the Hispanic father who says don’t stand on street corners, ‘cause you’ll look like a drug thug, these are behaviors every person of color learns at a young age to avoid harassment.
But this isn’t normal and black and brown communities will no longer allow it to be the norm. As America swears in a new president today, remember that now is the time and we are the ones to make systemic, long-lasting change that benefits eve