These thoughts from our friend Rick Rybeck are important to share and to spend time pondering today. I thank him for allowing me to republish.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr Day. There will be posts that describe Dr. King as a saint. (The reluctance of some people to say anything negative about Dr. King today stands in stark contrast with the way that he was criticized and vilified when he was alive.) There will be posts that talk about Dr. King as a dreamer. (His eloquence and vision informed his actions and inspired others. But to talk of him only as a dreamer is to turn him into a toothless tiger.) Some posts may talk about Dr. King’s shortcomings. There will be truths, distortions and falsehoods in some of these posts.

For me, I think about the following:

  • Dr. King and his colleagues had the courage to put themselves at risk for things they believed in. They not only put themselves at physical risk of injury and death, but they made themselves the targets of ridicule. That’s an even bigger risk for many of us.
  • Civil rights leaders worked hard to make us feel uncomfortable about the status quo. Many people disagreed with segregation, but weren’t willing to stick their necks out to change it. The civil rights movement made us so uncomfortable that we had to do things differently.
  • In the face of extreme oppression, exploitation and violence, the civil rights leaders could have demonized their oppressors. They could have adopted the techniques of the KKK. But they didn’t. They formed broad coalitions that actually changed things for the better. 
  • The civil rights leaders were clear that non-violence was not the same as passivity or politeness. They broke the law to make us uncomfortable about unjust laws. (But they didn’t break the law for the sake of flaunting authority. They were strategic about what laws would be broken and under what circumstances.)
  • Dr. King was unusual because he was not a single-issue zealot. He saw civil rights for African Americans as intimately connected with civil rights and human rights for all people. He saw a connection between civil rights and economic justice. (“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”) He saw the connection between civil rights, economic rights and foreign policy. Dr. King had the audacity to oppose the Vietnam War even though its main proponent, President Johnson, was a chief ally in the civil rights struggle.

These are just a few characteristics of the civil rights struggle that inspire me today. What would I have done if I had been older than a child? I don’t know.

But I don’t need to feel regretful that the time for action has passed. Quite the opposite. Racism remains deep and profound, although it is typically more subtle, hidden and insidious than during Dr. King’s time. And the need for economic justice is just as profound. The withering of the labor movement has put larger segments of the population at the mercy of financial manipulators and speculators who care neither about the human or environmental costs of their insatiable quests for wealth and power.

Those who participated in the civil rights struggle inspire me. I have much to learn from them. I must make an effort to learn more than just their dreams. I must search for their wisdom, knowledge and political acumen. And it is up to me to find and develop the courage, the work ethic and the respect for all people necessary to coalesce with others and turn dreams into reality.