Dr. King’s complex iconography can be understood with a simple lesson: He brought racial justice into the mainstream as a fundamental element of American democracy.
On this score, King served as the civil rights movement’s most important political mobilizer, a global Nobel Peace Prize-winning figure capable of bridging racial and economic divides by participating in bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, writing a passionate letter from a Birmingham jail cell, leading a March on Washington, and traversing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a demonstration that galvanized world opinion in support of the struggle for black dignity.
In the shadow of continued moments of racial strife, the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday represents America’s political and rhetorical acceptance of civil rights as a moral and political good. President-elect Donald Trump’s recent assaults on civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John L. Lewis, however, signal the potential end of this consensus, diminishing our nation’s moral stature on race matters at the precise moment we need it most.
Lewis is a genuine American hero, a humble and courageous foot soldier and civil rights leader, who suffered severe beatings in 1961 as a Freedom Rider and four years later during the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama. He is the last major speaker from the 1963 March on Washington living in America.
Trump launched into a racially charged smearing of the congressman’s Atlanta district as being in “horrible shape” and “crime infested.” That he engaged in this latest Twitter war a few days before the King holiday is no accident.
Throughout perhaps the most racially divisive presidential election campaign in history Trump used terms like “Chicago” to signal his open disdain for black America. His comments on “inner cities” revealed a man stuck in a time warp, a place where African Americans all reside in seething urban ghettoes whose potential for violence threatens to wreak havoc on law-abiding white citizens.
Trump and his nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, represent the post-consensus face of American politics on racial justice. By normalizing the demonization of predominantly black neighborhoods across the nation as unworthy of federal protection and resources, Trump signals to both ordinary citizens and political institutions the value that should be placed on the black folk who live there.
2017 promises to offer a racial landscape at the federal level that echoes aspects of King’s era more than our recent past, where President Obama’s rise gave way to grand expectations that the nation had finally turned the corner on race.
King’s willingness to speak truth to power helped to transform American democracy, expanding the vision of the Founding Fathers into one that included a larger cast of characters than they could have ever conceived. What he characterized as “great wells of democracy” became a metaphor for a panoramic movement for social justice that reshaped every corner of American society and inspired Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to make the cause their own.
Indeed, every president since then, despite disagreements over how best to achieve racial equality, has accepted this goal as an article of faith.
Yet the genius of King and the larger civil rights movement is in unleashing the power of ideas that transcend political leaders, democratic institutions, even nation-states. King faced obstacles larger and more enduring than presidents or election cycles, yet he never lost faith in the capacity for citizens to recognize their own humanity in the lives of others and to use this knowledge and empathy to transform the world.
“The arc of the moral universe is long,” King reminded the nation, “but it bends toward justice.”
Permanent change required, he argued, a “revolution of values” that included but also transcended policy changes, legal victories and legislative breakthroughs.
The power of King’s message in these times is reminding the world that justice is what love looks like in public, even when new leaders emerge willfully bent on forgetting.