I’ll admit it. I didn’t do any community service yesterday. I didn’t post my favorite MLK quote on Facebook and I didn’t re-read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Amidst the annual outpouring of appreciation for Dr. King, my presence was missing. Not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s because I know it requires more than a one-day commitment to fulfill his legacy?
Last year, I went to see a discussion at the Teach For America 20th Anniversary Summit with Geoffrey Canada. Everyone knows that Canada is a generally amazing speaker but he mentioned something that I think is applicable in talking about how we view the legacy of Dr. King. He asked the audience how much they were willing to fight for every child to have a quality education. Canada wasn’t asking how much the audience was willing to give through policy work or being an excellent teacher. This fight, he argued, was about “life or death” for many kids, and we had become soft” in our willingness to fight.
Many people have argued that the decline of the revolutionary spirit witnessed during the Civil Rights/Black Power Era can be attributed to the amorphous set of social justice issues now before us. Voting, integration, access to education and jobs were tangible goals that were easy to explain and easier to support. But I’ve never bought this argument. Mass incarceration is not a hard concept to explain, it’s may be hard to get past the moral complexities but its impact on communities of color is obvious. Sure, there is no easy “solution” to the education crisis but you pass schools everyday where less than 75% of the kids are graduating. Economic justice encompasses a lot of necessary changes in policy but I don’t see how most demands differ from those of the Memphis sanitation workers King was supporting when he died.
Integration is another popular excuse for death of the movement. The argument goes that when all the middle class people of color were granted access to jobs and wealth through the gains of the Civil Rights Era, they put down their protest signs and were lulled into inaction. There’s a lot wrapped up in there and most problematic being the need to have the “talented tenth” lead social justice movements. But I am still not convinced this is a plausible explanation for the lack of fight Canada says we need to confront today’s problems.
I don’t want to seem dismissive of current freedom fighters or project my own increasingly bourgeoisie spirit onto others. But one only need to watch a movie about the Freedom Riders, read about the roots of the Black Panther Party, and really listen to Dr. King’s speeches, to know that while the problems of inequality have grown in a million directions, the urgency to fight hard has declined. We don’t have any Bull Connors and yes, there is a history-maker sitting in the White House right now. Can it be that people just don’t think things are bad enough to make the sacrifice to make social justice a part of their everyday life?