Celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a national holiday, a time for reflecting, public service and community unity. If you are 90 years old or older, he would have been your contemporary. Did you stand with him or oppose his quest for equality and justice? Whether you did or not, as an American today we must examine his work for all it is worth. It is not just another day off – although it is hard to acknowledge a day off from work when hundreds of thousands of federal workers (fellow Americans) are being forced to take a leave from their jobs or worse yet a leave from their paychecks.
Families are being deprived of the privilege to support their families in their chosen professions because of a dysfunctional federal system that is being manipulated to create chaos and distrust. The system of injustice and inequality that Dr. King spoke against feels very different from the system many of our leaders have spoken scornfully about in recent years.
In Dr. King’s lifetime, being an American citizen with all rights and privileges thereof was limited to a chosen few. If you were Black, Jewish, Native American, Oriental, Hispanic, Caribbean, Catholic, Muslim, Buddist, female, gay or any other group that did not fit the White Anglo Saxon Protestant norm, you were an other. Today discrimination based on race, religion or sexual origin is prohibited, due mainly to the work of Dr. King and the millions of Americans who stood with him and submitted to the non-violent protest he led. Multi-culturalism and diversity is the norm, therefore when we hear the blatantly racist speech or chants of hate groups that still dwell among us, we cringe with disbelief that those deep-seated ideals and isms still exist in our society today. Moreover, we are flabbergasted that they are spoken from the lips of high-ranking elected officials who only got elected because a segment of our population (America’s population) voted them into office.
As we celebrate Dr. King, who was killed in the prime of his life 51 years ago, let us remember his fight, let us remember his walk, let us remember his words:
We must learn to live together or perish together as fools.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was forged forward due to much of the hateful deeds committed in St. Augustine that made their way to the national forefront mainly due to the presence of national media here to cover the 400th birthday of this ancient city. Sit ins, swim ins, wade ins and attempts to be served by local establishments led to violent attacks and arrest of many; including among them Dr. King, the wife of a governor, 16 rabbis and hundreds of college students from around the county. This tiny city made international headlines in its quest for freedom and justice for all.
Today we can eat, sleep, socialize and move about as we please without backlash due to discrimination from our government or society. Yet people still feel the urgent need to take to the streets to protest the inequalities that are still being meted out by underhanded interpretation of laws that block voting rights and other civil rights that we rely on a just government to uphold. When the elected officials speak the words of hatred that bring back those days of Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement, we cannot help but reflect on the need to keep up the fight.
We are not makers of history. We are made by history.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Words from Dr. King spoken so long ago, yet still true today. My prayer is that the history that makes us and the next generation is the history of a unified America, not a divided one. My prayer is that the history that makes us is a peaceful America, that establishes and upholds just laws, not a return to Jim Crow, vigilante justice or something worse. My prayer is that we will incorporate one more quote from Dr. King into our daily lives:
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Gayle Phillips, Executive Director
Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center
Image source: State Archives of Florida / Florida Memory