Human-rights leaders from around the global descended on Atlanta this morning.
We squeezed, shoulder to shoulder, into the pews of Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached. In the halls of that stands magnificent church—a house of enduring hope, a beacon in the darkness—we sang and shouted praises of the man renowned the world over as the greatest civil rights leader this country has ever known.
Atlanta is truly the land of dreamers, but none great as that noble aspiration unfurled and embraced by Brother Martin—equal protection under the law, freedom from the tyranny of masked marauders, men who would plant bombs in the basement of a church and kill four little girls in Birmingham, Alabama, or who would snatch a boy from a house in Money, Mississippi, torture, lynch, and mutilate his boy. He dreamed of protection from a government that would sanction persecution, prosecution, murder and maiming and then call that justice.
Brother Martin not only fought for our right to the ballot, the right to walk on our own accord as free men and women—children, one and all, of an Almighty God. He gave his very life in an attempt to perfect this union.
We go to Ebenezer each year not only to speak his name, not only to honor his living and his blood, but also to answer his call to service—his call to the Beloved community to rise and clinch the proverbial baton in the name of social justice. We go to renew the fight.
It is important to note that the second wave of the American human-rights movement took root here on the very ground where Dr. King once trod. He stood with people like former Ambassador Andrew Young, C.T. Vivian, and the Reverend James Orange. Together, they paved the way for a new generation of freedom fighters, including a little brown girl like me—born in the heat of 1968.
It was Orange, an early mentor, who reminded me nearly 20 years ago of my own obligation to society. A King foot soldier, he was among a delegation to South Africa who helped oversee that country’s first free and fair elections.
Aberjhani in his Splendid Treasury of Stories once said, “Democracy is not simply a license to indulge individual whims and proclivities. It is also holding oneself accountable to some reasonable degree for the conditions of peace and chaos that impact the lives of those who inhabit one’s beloved extended community.”
Civil disobedience can then be defined as an organized love—love for community, love of country, and love for humanity.
“I became convinced,” Dr. King once said, “that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good.”
Some will tell you with assurance that we’ve made substantial progress over the last 48 years, since the death of Dr. King. They will tell you that we’ve come a mighty long way since the passage of multiple civil rights acts—and in large measure they are right about that.
They will tell you with great confidence that the election of a black president, the appointment of two U.S. attorneys general of African descent and with people of color now walking the halls of Congress and various state legislatures that we have overcome. Some will even tell you that as a nation we have done enough—that the rest of the story lay in the bootstraps of those who continue to exist on the margins—lives tattered and splayed under the weight of mass incarceration, fueled by stop-and-frisk and policing for profit.
The truth is the Constitution that we hold so dear wrote a check larger than the very souls of the men who drafted it. Certainly, the progress we have gained over the near half-century is significant. However, progress is measured not in the height of the mountains climbed. It is measured in the depth of the valleys where the forsaken reside.
It is measured the final heartbeats of a 12-year-old boy, shot dead over a toy gun in a snowy park in Cleveland, Ohio. It is measured by the labored breaths of a man choked to death on a New York street for daring to protest his unlawful arrest. It is measured in a prosecutor and a grand jury’s inability to see the immorality of such horrors.
It is measured in the frustration of an 80-some-odd-year-old black woman who cannot produce a birth certificate to join the voting rolls. And in the eyes of a child of an undocumented immigrant sleeping on the bare floor of a detention center, waiting to be sent to a place they’ve never seen before.
It is measured in the souls of nine praying saints in the basement of a Charleston church, slaughtered by a white supremacist. It is measured in the paycheck of a woman who receives half the pay for twice the work. It is measured in credit default swaps, derivatives and predatory lending practices that strip hardworking people of their homes and leave them saddled in debt because they—unlike the banks—aren’t too big to fail.
It is measured in the water, spoiled with toxins and lead, pumping through Flint, Michigan.
When Dr. King spoke so eloquently and with such great moral clarity, about the arc of justice, about poverty, about living out our collective higher conscience, I believe in my heart that this is what he meant.
However, as we celebrate his birth, I do so not only with a heart of sadness for our current condition, but also in gladness that only hope can bring. I joy in a miracle that has yet to unfold.
While there remains a single soul trapped in the prison of oppression, stuck in the valley, none of us can be free. And as long as this circumstance persists, we have an obligation to disruption and disobedience.
This I know: The fight is not over. The state of the dream is unmet.