On Martin Luther King Day, 2016

Walking with Cake: Flag by Elizabeth Stilwell

(Drawing by Elizabeth Stilwell.)

Last week, I watched President Obama’s final State of the Union Address and felt comforted by his words. Things are tumultuous right now and sometimes it feels like the state of our nation hangs precariously in the hands of those who wish to crush it. The President mentioned Dr. King, and I wondered what he might think of the current state of things, where black men, women, and children must fear for their lives on a daily basis and Muslims are targeted by bigots hoping to become president soon. It’s a far cry from Dr. King’s dream for this country.

My boys have been learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at school, and last week, my older son mentioned that something very sad happened to him. I braced myself, wanting to protect them both from the reality of King’s assassination, but also realizing that, if my son knew enough to talk about this, then it was time to listen to him. He shared that Dr. King had been killed, and my younger son began to cry. I did my best to comfort them both, and my younger son asked why someone would hurt a good person. That’s such a complicated question without an easy answer, and I tried to explain that, often, when someone is loved and known for doing good, other people will try to hurt that person. It’s sad, and it happens too frequently. Both of my boys seemed to accept the answer, but I know we’ll have more conversations in the future.

I come back to President Obama’s words, because they seem like a call to action.

“What I’m asking for is hard. It’s easier to be cynical; to accept that change isn’t possible, and politics is hopeless, and to believe that our voices and actions don’t matter. But if we give up now, then we forsake a better future. Those with money and power will gain greater control over the decisions that could send a young soldier to war, or allow another economic disaster, or roll back the equal rights and voting rights that generations of Americans have fought, even died, to secure. As frustration grows, there will be voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens who don’t look like us, or pray like us, or vote like we do, or share the same background.

We can’t afford to go down that path. It won’t deliver the economy we want, or the security we want, but most of all, it contradicts everything that makes us the envy of the world.

So, my fellow Americans, whatever you may believe, whether you prefer one party or no party, our collective future depends on your willingness to uphold your obligations as a citizen. To vote. To speak out. To stand up for others, especially the weak, especially the vulnerable, knowing that each of us is only here because somebody, somewhere, stood up for us. To stay active in our public life so it reflects the goodness and decency and optimism that I see in the American people every single day.

It won’t be easy. Our brand of democracy is hard. But I can promise that a year from now, when I no longer hold this office, I’ll be right there with you as a citizen — inspired by those voices of fairness and vision, of grit and good humor and kindness that have helped America travel so far. Voices that help us see ourselves not first and foremost as black or white or Asian or Latino, not as gay or straight, immigrant or native born; not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans first, bound by a common creed. Voices Dr. King believed would have the final word — voices of unarmed truth and unconditional love.

I want to be a voice of unarmed truth and unconditional love, and I want to speak out more for the things I know to be true. I owe it to my boys to do my best to make the world a better place for them, and hopefully, to help make Dr. King’s dream a reality.

MLK Day posts by my fellow Ethical Writers Coalition members:
Video: Black History Tour of Washington, D.C. by Bianca Alexander.
On Speaking Out: MLK Day Reflection by Leah Wise.
The Radical Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Elizabeth Stilwell.

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