There is a great deal of talk these days about civil rights, voting rights, equality and justice. As humans our history is sadly littered with prejudice, hate and even genocide. As I type this there are people being abused by governments and their fellow citizens all over the world. The arc of history is indeed long and while it has often bent towards justice, it is all too often a slow and cautious process. Meanwhile those bearing the brunt of unfairness are expected to simply wait patiently.
When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the world’s most well known advocates for civil rights he understood the impatience of those who continued to suffer from segregation, violence, and injustice longer than they should have in a country that idealized freedom. He dreamed of a day when all people would be equal. He hoped that such a condition would not be too long in coming. He understood that the pillars of justice included economic security, educational opportunities, and the right to vote and be both heard and represented.
Dr. King was the eloquent voice of the civil rights movement that resulted in tearing down many of the barriers that had kept the children and grandchildren of slaves bound by the chains of poverty, hatred, lack of opportunity, segregation. He became a martyr to the cause and a renowned figure in the years after his death, but many have forgotten how much his hopes and dreams had angered significant numbers of American citizens during his lifetime.
He had been hounded and spied upon by the F.B.I. He had been arrested and jailed. An attempt was made to kill him with a bomb left at his home. Police set snarling dogs on him and wielded hoses designed to knock him and other protestors down. He was taken for a ride in a police car on a dark road in Mississippi as a threat designed to discourage him from continuing his work. Dr. King and the thousands who worked to bring all citizens the rights they deserved understood that their very lives were in danger from those who were unwilling to accept that justice must be for all.
Those of us who have not experienced the suffering of being abused simply because of the color of skin or differences of any kind tend to believe that the story ultimately ended well with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in the nineteen sixties. They see the progress that has been made and assume that there is nothing more to be done, but that would be an error because we have seen situations that should alert us to the truth that we still have work to do.
I was actually one of those people who thought that the hate and prejudice that I had seen in my teen years had been wiped from the American psyche. I balked at the idea that some people hated President Barack Obama because he was Black. Then I began to hear the racist epithets railed at him and his wife. I was stunned to realize that such thought was still alive in our society. Over the past many years I have watched the hatred only grow and become more and more visible. I have personally heard and witnessed horrific forms of racism.
We cannot stop the struggle for the rights that Dr. King once advocated just because we wish to just be comfortable. It is usually very difficult and even a bit frightening to make systemic changes, but I realize that this is what we must continue to do. We have to ask ourselves why poverty is still so prevalent. As an educator I know full well that criminal behaviors and addictions often begin in desperation. it’s up to all of us to consider ways of improving lives. If our current programs are not accomplishing what we had hoped, then we must consider new and better ways of ensuring that everyone has access the food, housing, healthcare and a strong education.
We also must be certain that everyone has fair access to the ballot and to representation. That means looking at voting districts and asking if a poor minority neighborhood is benefiting from being zoned with a number of wealthy white areas of town that water down their voice in the halls of power. It requires us to consider whether or not our processes for voting work well for those who work long hours and can’t leave jobs to vote during the scheduled times. Most of all, it means that we must be willing to listen when any group is feeling belittled and beset upon. We have to be certain that we are hearing their voices and taking them seriously.
We can be proud of our progress, but we can never be complacent. We have issues to address right now. Senate rules that are barriers to needed changes may need to be updated. Lawmakers who only tow the party are too often part of the problem. We began the process of civil rights with a coupling of courageous Democrats and Republicans who were willing to do the right thing even if it meant that they would never again win an election. This is the kind of patriotism that our country needs now more than ever.