Published in: USA Today
Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande
This Monday, America will remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. through songs, while marching in parades, during prayers at churches or with community service. On America's campaign trail, presidential candidates will join hands with voters at celebrations throughout the country hoping to captivate their audience the way the man we honor this day did decades before.
But in a world seemingly fraying at the seams, what would King do? How would the renowned civil rights leader spend this day - his day?
He'd be rallying for a better America.
Certainly, times have changed since MLK's day. Workplace discrimination and fire hoses blasting on peaceful demonstrators are images from old newsreels, right? Yes, unless you read the newspaper and see PepsiCo Inc.'s $3.1 million settlement of race-discrimination charges or viewed video last November of police saturating Occupy protesters with pepper spray at the University of California-Davis. The struggle for a better society, after all, never ends.
In August of 1967, only months before his assassination, King addressed the question "Where do we go from here?" during his keynote at the 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) Convention in Atlanta. Where King wanted his followers to go was forward on that consistently long, sometimes meandering road toward the city of freedom. To get there, "We must create full employment, or we must create incomes," King preached. "People must be made consumers by one method or the other. Once they are placed in this position, we need to be concerned that the potential of the individual is not wasted."
Sound familiar? 45 years later, the civil rights champion's sentiments are echoing on America's campaign trail. Right now, it is Republicans vying for their party's nomination who are talking about an economic rebirth. High unemployment, people losing their homes, record poverty rates. This is not the America that King envisioned. This national rebirth will be the theme of the 2012 election.
Though the nation has made monumental strides in the decades since King's death, the past few years have witnessed an erosion of the economic path that King wanted this nation to take.
Our wounded economy has been staggered yet again by forces beyond our control, whether from natural disasters like Japan's earthquake or man-made ones like the Euro Zone meltdown. Anti-austerity protests set cities across Europe ablaze and here in the U.S. the Occupy movement enveloped cities large and small, for a time at least. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce predicts that the already sluggish U.S. economy will slow even more in the months ahead, and 23 million Americans remain unemployed or have given up the search for a job altogether.
Back on the campaign trail, politicians are confronted by people fed up with the same lines from their leaders offering the same solutions and ultimately fruitless results. So why would King have joined them, trying to engage our political leaders in discussions about improving their country?
Someone has to step up
King made it clear to the congregation at the 16th Street Baptist Church in the spring of 1963. He told the faithful of a night drive he made with his brother A.D. from Atlanta to Chattanooga and how the two of them passed car after car operated by drivers to "discourteous" or "forgetful" to dim their lights. "A.D. looked over at me and he said, 'I'm tired of this now, and the next car that comes by here and refuses to dim the lights, I'm going to refuse to dim mine.' " King shared. "I said, 'Wait a minute, don't do that. Somebody has to have some sense on this highway and if somebody doesn't have sense enough to dim the lights, we'll all end up destroyed on this highway.' " The eye-for-an-eye philosophy, for King, would just end up leaving everybody blind!
Even today, someone, somewhere has to talk sense.
So what would King do today to get his point across? Perhaps he would "Tebow" in front of our leaders in Washington, D.C., to remind them that there is more to all of us than what divides us. Can we maintain our humanity in what looks to be a vicious political season? King would say we must.
Elected officials and those seeking to be elected must remember that their role is to serve - not undermine. Consistency in words and manner leads to trust. Trust breeds confidence. And confidence is at the core of delivering a better tomorrow.
"Let this affirmation be our ringing cry," King told the delegates of the SCLC Convention. "It will give us the courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom."
Monday I think I'll remember Martin over coffee with a friend to discuss what I can do to get our nation back on track, perhaps starting with action in my community. Maybe you will do the same in yours.
But remember, King wouldn't give up. King wouldn't walk away. King surely wouldn't abandon a vision of economic strength just because the path was an arduous one. He would demand better of each of us - himself included - and he would hold our leaders accountable for failing to guide us in our walk toward that mountain top.
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