The Urgency of King’s Message: Forty Eight Years and Counting

I think I’ve found a new, potent source of energy; Martin Luther King, Jr. spinning in his grave over the state of race relations in the country and on the presidential election trail. All we need to do is tap into it and we can power our devices for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, it won’t do much for our national soul.

In the 48 years since his untimely and tragic death, King’s legacy has been begged, borrowed and stolen by those who believe they knew his intentions and by those who wanted them buried along with him. From the start, politicians – mostly on the right, including President Reagan and Senator Jesse Helms – opposed even making King’s birthday a national holiday. Arizona had to be threatened with the ultimate penalty of no Super Bowls, before they would accept the day. It’s also become a favorite day for the NBA to schedule afternoon games, but that seems to be the upper limit on MLK Day commercialization, and that’s a good thing. Those of us who are old enough might remember that January was traditionally the month when retailers would run sales on textiles that they labeled “White Sales.”

Can you imagine?

Over the past few years we’ve witnessed terrible incidents where African-American men, women and children were unjustly killed by the police, unnecessarily fined to the brink of bankruptcy by corrupt public officials, and stopped by the police for reasons that white Americans don’t experience. And what is considered good news for African-Americans, that their rates of narcotics deaths is lower, is tragically caused by racism, as this article recounts:

There is a reason that blacks appear to have been spared the worst of the narcotic epidemic, said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a drug abuse expert. Studies have found that doctors are much more reluctant to prescribe painkillers to minority patients, worrying that they might sell them or become addicted.
“The answer is that racial stereotypes are protecting these patients from the addiction epidemic,” said Dr. Kolodny, a senior scientist at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University and chief medical officer for Phoenix House Foundation, a national drug and alcohol treatment company.

On the campaign trail, the Republicans continue to express their outrage that minorities are not working because white tax money is easily available to them in the form of public assistance and unemployment benefits. Their fealty to Donald Trump’s immigration scheme will doom them with a majority of Hispanic voters and they can’t win the White House with only White Votes. Their opposition to a fair minimum wage, infrastructure projects, labor collective bargaining rights and public schools really doesn’t allow for any middle class group to support them, much less those who have traditionally been marginalized in American society.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is making his move in Iowa and New Hampshire and is now trying to appeal more to African-Americans, a group that Hillary Clinton has always done well with. Both of them have had problems with Black Lives Matter and their relative success could come down to the minority vote in southern states and northern cities. The Democrats cannot take the African-American vote for granted because the party has controlled many cities over the years, yet the schools have not improved, housing has not become more affordable, the minimum wage hasn’t helped and many jobs have fled the country.

Barack Obama’s election will have a lasting effect on this country, even as he is the victim of both overt and subtle racism on the part of many of his opponents. That he has served this country with distinction, morality, forthrightness and a stubborn streak that has forced his opposition to argue against fair treatment of all people, makes him a worthy representative of King’s legacy.

And this is why we need to have a holiday for Martin Luther King. It’s here to remind us that we will never live up to the true meaning of our founding documents as long as we treat people differently under the law, in the workplace and schools, and, most importantly, in our heads and hearts. I would urge you to add to your resolutions to lose weight and make more money, one that includes an action, an attitude change, or a commitment to act in King’s spirit and honor his words.

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