Editors Note: This post was written two years ago in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This year, we have seen the dangerous consequences of the words of President Trump that, as I wrote at the time, “tore us down” instead of lifting us up. Today, as we look toward the imminent inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, we republish this essay to remember what Dr. King taught: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
At times like these, with division and anger leading the national conversation, we can feel grateful that there is a day to honor someone who represents their polar opposite.
At times like these, we may hang on to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. like a life raft as we swim, daily, in waters polluted by tweeting in all caps, race-baiting, lies and childish insults from our commander in chief.
Remember there was a time when words uplifted, not tore us down:
“Violence is not the way,” Dr. King said. “Hate is not the way. Bitterness is not the way. We must stand up with love in our hearts, with a lack of bitterness and yet a determination to protest courageously for justice and freedom in this land.”
Dr. King preached non-violence, but also freedom and justice and equality. These are the core values of our democracy at any time.
It’s so often hard to remember this.
In the age of Trump many of us — I do, at least — feel ashamed to see words giving comfort to white supremacists. And some of us feel helpless witnessing a brutal federal policy that separates families in our name.
Now in the age of Facebook Live, we have also been made painfully aware of the continued, systemic racism faced by people of color no matter who has been in the Oval Office — including an African American president.
With that in mind, let us recall the observation Dr. King made about the arc of history being long but bending toward justice. Let us recall that he taught us how freedom for all is driven forward — by incremental effort.
“If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving,” he urged us.
Here is something else worth remembering: A Republican president, Ronald Reagan, signed the legislation to create Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983. This was only the second national holiday created to commemorate and honor an American; George Washington was the other.
So we take comfort in that, just as we may take comfort in the advances our country has seen toward the values Dr. King espoused in the diversity of our new House of Representatives, and in the richness of our popular culture from Oprah to “Black Panther” to Beyonce.
Because of him, we have a national hero who is African American and celebrated everywhere, officially, thanks to his sacrifices and those of his generation who marched and sat-in and stood-up for human dignity.
More than ever, we need his words and his legacy.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”