“If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” — MLK
Martin Luther King Jr. was an optimist. Paraphrasing 19th-century cleric Theodore Parker, King preached that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
He believed in his country. A resolute patriot, he foresaw a nation that lived up to its creed, that kept its word to all of its citizens, that presented the world with a powerful example of justice and equality for all.
The civil rights movement that he led brought the United States a long way down that road toward a broad justice. When he was assassinated in 1968, it was still difficult to imagine a black man inhabiting the Oval Office, black men and women running Fortune 500 companies, black National Football League coaches, and powerful black women so influential that they are known only by their first names.
In the nearly half-century since his death, we have seen all those things. And more.
My 8-year-old daughter has seen brown, kinky-haired girls chase their dog across the White House lawn. She has seen gorgeous dark-skinned women grace the covers of fashion magazines. She has watched two young black women dominate Olympic gymnastics and had her picture taken with the costumed figure of Disney’s black princess, Tiana. For her, those examples of a profoundly changed nation represent normalcy.
I recite those examples because I need to remind myself of King’s optimism. As the nation approaches the 88th anniversary of his birth, we are traipsing — no, stampeding — backward, toward a time of legally sanctioned injustice, of explicit bigotry, of freely expressed racial resentments. A vicious backlash against racial progress fueled the rise of Donald Trump, who will take office as the nation’s 45th president this month.
Trump represents the antithesis — a grotesque inversion — of all that King stood for. While King respected labor organizer Cesar Chavez as a fellow leader in the fight for full equality, Trump has denounced Mexican immigrants as criminals. While King drew crucial support from Jewish Americans, Trump has drawn anti-Semites into his inner circle. While King’s last great crusade was an effort to improve the economic standing of poor and working-class Americans of all races, Trump — despite his campaign pledges — is seeding his administration with rich men and women who disdain the poor.
The president-elect ushers in a new post-Reconstruction period, a bitter retrenchment that figures to halt the progress the nation has made toward a more perfect union. It is no mere coincidence that Trump’s election victory has led to so many recorded examples of racist tirades from his supporters. They have succeeded, in their view, in taking “their” country back from the citizens of color who dared believe it was their country, too.
Yet, there is something about these disheartening developments that could make the annual celebration of King’s birth more substantial than ceremonial, more authentic than ritualistic. Progressives don’t have the luxury of merely singing the old hymns or citing the old speeches. There are battles to fight to preserve hard-won gains.
Forgive me, then, as I remember one of King’s speeches that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves. Accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King’s prophetic voice rang through:
“I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. … This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. … When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.”
King was no naive dreamer. But he always believed in an America that was better than the one in which he lived.
Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
IMAGE: Photo via Wikimedia Commons