94 years ago today, Martin Luther King, Jr. was born. After a quiet childhood, protected by his family and church from most of the South’s brutality, he would go on to live one of the most consequential lives of the 20th century. His ability to read the world’s economic and racial crises, its spiritual emptiness, his skills in writing, speaking, and creative protest have left the world a way forward. But we consistently refuse to take it. His way seems too hard, too thoughtful, too demanding. We’d prefer a color-blind Martin King, a man who only told us to get along. He said and did so much more than that. He still does. His words and example are a vivid, effective, and honest way forward. If only we would pay attention.
As I have in past years, I’d like to reflect here on what Dr. King might see and say regarding some of the sorrows of this country and the world in 2023. Simply put, I’m quite sure were Dr. King here on his 94th birthday, he would tell us that we have a great deal of work to do.
Economic inequality causes massive suffering throughout America and the world. While corporations and a tiny number of wildly wealthy people grow in wealth, vast majorities have few resources and little access to hope. Additionally, the wealthy seem to live in an ever-increasing isolation from most of the world’s realities. Many people in America, who have security and privilege, don’t even know what troubles most of their fellow citizens. Perhaps worst of all, a toxic indifference to suffering infects many people who are middle and upper-middle class. They have what they need. Beyond that, they often do not care. This indifference becomes a death sentence.
Similarly, while violence and poverty are daily realities in many parts of the world, people are on the move. The world convulses with refugees fleeing violence, whether in Central America, Africa, or inner cities everywhere, people are going to desperate lengths to move, escape, and relocate. At the same time, governments react in fear of “others” and close borders, or develop vicious immigration systems that allow money to flow across borders, but that stop and degrade humans who try to cross borders. The current state of refugees in the world today, perhaps alongside climate change, is our most pressing and damning challenge. As always, indifference among the secure, seems to halt any chance of compassion or progress.
Both of these complicated realities, massive inequality and the plight of refugees, are squarely in Dr. King’s heart of concern. He was always able to see the suffering of poor people in the clearest ways. He could also see the economic and political systems that kept the suffering in place. More deeply, he could discern and diagnose the psychological and spiritual ills, like indifference, that deepen the suffering of the poor and that ultimately destroy the happiness of the privileged. Reading his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? one will discover and searing and hopeful diagnosis and set of solutions.
If only. If only more people knew his life and work. If only more people took the time to understand his way of reading the world. If only people could see beyond the white-washed King, who has been made palatable to white people.
Dr. King is a gift to the world because he saw, named, and understood the problems of his day and ours. He is also a gift to the world because saw, described, and explained possible solutions. If only we could learn.
Photograph at top is of Dr. King encouraging a young boy at a 1964 anti-segregation demonstration in St. John County, Florida.
The two photographs in the text of my reflection are from paintings by artist, Kadir Nelson.