By Melanie Reding, Adirondack Diversity Initiative Associate Director
On Monday, January 15, people across the United States celebrated Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. Our social media channels were full of feel-good MLK Jr. quotes about love and light and doing the right things. Few posts and shares contained words from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
In that letter, the lines written are uncomfortable for most. It takes us — specifically the White us and religious us — to task. He calls us out on our silence, slow progress, and our inability to acknowledge the genocide, slavery and White Supremacy our nation’s institutions and systems were built on. That’s not what we want to experience and feel on a “holiday.” It’s not what we want to feel in the face of a world that seems more chaotic than calm.
We are coming off a year of war — Russo-Ukraine, Israel-Palestine and Sudan. Of internal conflicts in Myanmar and insurgencies in Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Tunisia and more. With all of the heartbreak, who wouldn’t want to be reminded simply “to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
But we easily forget that MLK Jr. is speaking about much more than a feel-good love, but a radical love. A love that’s ultimate purpose is selflessness, compassion, understanding, and justice. The type of love and care that truly “drives out the darkness” of oppression and injustice. A love that includes being uncomfortable, risking, and sacrificing power and privilege because we understand that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” That “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
MLK Jr. reminds us that “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” The reality is we need to be taken to task, we need to be held accountable, we need to stop delaying justice. To stop saying it can’t be done and start saying it must be done, “for the time is always right to do what is right.”
On December 19, 2023, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul signed a bill that empowers a commission to study “not only the history of slavery in New York but it’s subsequent effects on housing discrimination, biased policing, income inequality and mass incarceration of African Americans” (New Times Dec. 19, 2023). She stated, “Today, we begin to right the wrongs of the past and set our entire State on a path towards a better future as we explore what New York should look like.”
I made the mistake of reading the public comments to the Governor’s announcement; they reminded me how far we have yet to go. They reminded me of the widespread unwillingness to accept the ugliness and cruelty of the past and the long reaching and lasting effects of those policies and laws.
How unwilling we are to face the difficult history of the actions of this country, our countryfolk, or ourselves. It’s easier to claim “it wasn’t us,” “it’s in the past,” “we don’t want our children to feel bad,” that there is a “right way to work for justice but this isn’t it,” and “that change takes time.” It’s easier to ask everyone just “to be kind to each other” as if that will end racism, ageism, sexism and all the other -isms that demean and dehumanize.
How cruel an ask when your land has been stolen, your relatives sold, your education challenged, your marriage contested, your loan denied, your vote discarded, your child’s life ended… because they knocked on the wrong door.
NO! That is NOT how change happens.
It’s through the dedicated labor of those with privilege and power repairing and rebuilding the systems and institutions that were created to work only for some and not for others. It’s through reaching out and across our communities, listening to the stories and believing them, and wanting for others that which we have. It’s the hard struggle of ending oppressive and unjust systems, institutions and structures both past and present that will finally bend our moral arc towards justice. Until each of those who truly believe in equity and justice “have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
The Adirondack Diversity Initiative is determined to work and fight until “justice runs down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” It’s a slow process (we are working to repair over 400 years of injustice) to move people from fear and discomfort to understanding and action. But “we cannot walk alone. And as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” This work cannot be a single day issue, it’s a daily act.
So I leave you with this excerpt of MLK Jr.’s 1963 I Have a Dream speech:
“And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true… When we allow freedom to ring — when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.’”
Additional quotes from Martin Luther King cited in this blog:
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.”
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
– Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
– Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“We are determined here today to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’”
– Montgomery, Alabama, December 5, 1955. Here, King borrows a verse from the Bible, the Book of Amos, which he frequently reused in speeches.
“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
– Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Photo at top by Stephen Walker.