I first visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial two weeks ago on a brief trip to D.C. I found the memorial striking, but probably not in the way its creators intended. To me, it emphasized how easy it is to celebrate past successes, without carrying their ideals into the future.
One quotation in particular caught my eye: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice” (16 April 1963, Birmingham, AL). Can we describe our current society as either just or free from tension? Obviously, the answer is no. While we may have seen marginal improvements since Dr. King’s day, we have mainly traded old problems for new ones. Overt racism has been replaced by covert racism. Technological advances have enabled civil rights to be taken away in new and exciting ways. And the women’s liberation movement has been replaced by the rights of their unborn fetuses.
Many Americans will honor Dr. King’s memory today by participating in a Day of Service. Yet those who owe the greatest service to our country have done the least for our needy citizens. No, I’m not talking about the 1%–today, I’m talking about Congress. The body that has been so preoccupied with enforcing their social agenda that they haven’t had time to address unemployment. Although the 104th Congress gave $10 million to the MLK memorial, the 112th has not concerned itself with ideas like “equality” or “justice.” Why shouldn’t Congress serve America like so many others will do today? What might it look like if Congress had a real day of service?
- They would enact President Obama’s Buffett Tax, so that millions of Americans wouldn’t have to do without social services just because tax revenues are down.
- They would eliminate super PACs, once they realized that corporations aren’t really people, and that our country has better ways to spend its money.
- They would stop attacking a woman’s right to choose and make it easier for her to have the children she wants.
- They’d prove the old adage “show, don’t tell” by passing strong anti-bullying legislation, making “It Gets Better” videos charmingly obsolete.
It would be a lot to accomplish in one day, but without all the fundraisers, party conflicts, and meetings with lobbyists, I think they could finish this agenda by lunchtime. That would give them the afternoon to deal with the truly difficult problems, like the economy and whether french fries are really a vegetable.
Everything would return back to normal on Tuesday. But our country would be a healthier, happier, and less cynical place. And the next time I visited the memorial, it wouldn’t remind me of a broken promise. It would live up to its name—a stone of hope.
How are you celebrating Dr. King’s memory today, and how do you envision his values informing the current political debates?