January 20, 2020 – Nearly 52 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “The Other America” speech in a high school gym in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
He spoke of the need to acknowledge “that America is still a racist country.”
“[W]e will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is,” he told the crowd that day in March 1968, just weeks before his assassination. “It is a myth of an inferior people.”
Today, while our nation’s challenges have evolved, the fundamental problems of racial, social and economic injustice remain. That’s why so much of what King said resonates just as much now as it did decades ago.
I believe that once again we must feel the urgency to act, to work together to achieve “the destiny of America” that King spoke about. The fact is, so much of the progress we’ve made since King delivered his speech is in real danger. We’re seeing a surge of white nationalism that is not only producing deadly terror attacks but is injecting a dangerous toxin into our nation’s political bloodstream.
We’re seeing the Trump administration rip apart health care and nutrition programs for the poor; imprison nonwhite asylum-seekers by the thousands; promote discrimination against people of color, the LGBTQ community, and Muslims; and so much more – all while the president himself invokes the language of dictators and thumbs his nose at the very institutions and principles of our democracy.
At the same time, our criminal justice system continues to destroy the lives of people of color and millions struggle to feed their families as the rich get more tax cuts. And, our ability to force change through the ballot box is undercut by gerrymandering, voter suppression and a political system that’s deeply polarized.
It’s no wonder that many people across the country, particularly those facing hardship and adversity, are deluged by feelings of despair. Many families have suffered from the opioid crisis and other forms of addiction, and now the child suicide rate is rising.
These challenges can seem like a mountain that is simply unscalable. But, as King said in his speech, we can climb that mountain “by working with determination and realizing that power must be shared.”
Acting with boldness and intention, we can get closer to what King sought – a world where love triumphs over fear and hate, where reconciliation is the alternative to violence and war, where human decency and compassion reign over hunger, poverty and homelessness.
We must raise our voices. We must activate and mobilize. We must be unflappable and resilient. And we must be unwavering in our commitment.
As America remembers King with a day of service on Monday, let each of us consider what we can do to make a difference – whether it’s in the political realm or, perhaps, in the life of someone who needs a hand.
And most of all, let us have faith that, together, we can create the extraordinary future that King envisioned. As he said on that day in 1968, “[O]ur goal is freedom and I believe that we’re going to get there.
“It’s going to be more difficult from here on in, but I believe we’re going to get there, because however much she strays away from it, the goal of America is freedom and our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America.”
Karen Baynes-Dunning, Interim President, Southern Poverty Law Center