I don’t have a copy of the speech Dr. King made that afternoon in Detroit, but I remember feeling what my friend Andrew Young calls “freedom high” after he spoke. I remember being in awe of his courage and what he called his “abiding faith in America,” even in the darkest, most violent days of the Civil Rights Movement. I was proud to shake his hand when my father introduced me and even prouder to be able to tell Dr. King yes when he asked if I was a good student.
But that was fifty years ago. If he had lived, Dr. King would have turned eighty-five this year. It’s hard to believe, but even harder to admit that we continue to struggle to make that famous dream come true. Of course, there has been progress on all fronts and I understand both the real and symbolic significance of the election and re-election of President Barack Obama, but Dr. King had a bigger idea than putting one man in the White House and if we’re not careful, the transformative nature of his radical vision for the country he loved will get lost in the official holiday hoopla.
On January 15, people are urged to use the federally mandated holiday as “a day on not a day off,” and encouraged to do some volunteer work in their communities. But somehow, as I watch the coverage of smiling politicians serving meals at homeless shelters, or businessmen and women in overalls painting a community center, I wonder if this is the best way to honor a man who was talking about changing the very nature of our society; about ending war around the world; about redistributing income to feed and clothe and house our neighbors simply because they are our neighbors.
To truly honor Dr. King, we have to recognize that his dream was so much bigger than one historic election, and so, too, must ours be. Our dream has to carry within it a lifetime commitment to active involvement in both community and government because that’s what democracy is all about – citizen participation. And I admit that kind of work is hard and time consuming and frustrating and requires lots of exchanges with folks who don’t always see things the way see do and will require convincing or compromise, but what’s the alternative? Non-participation leaves us to the less than tender mercies of those whose dreams are rooted not in fairness, but in money; not in the participation of the many, but in privilege for the few.
At the heart of our citizenship will always be the right to vote. While we can’t forget that it has been sanctified by the blood that was shed to guarantee it to all Americans, we also have to admit that no matter how much we celebrate that sacrifice, it is worthless if we don’t participate in every single election and vote as if our lives depended on it. Because they do.
I’ll bet if I asked how many of you voted in the 2008 presidential election and then how many voted in the mid-terms there would be a sharp drop in numbers. This is not a test, but think how different things might be in Washington today if everybody who voted in the presidential race had been able to sustain that level of personal connection; that level of hope and optimism and active citizenship without getting distracted from the ever challenging task of shaping our still young country into a place we all can be proud to call home.
But something happens to a lot of us between presidential elections. We get distracted or busy or, worse, we get cynical. We start talking about how our vote doesn’t matter and label any effort to organize us as hopelessly romantic and out of date. We talk about how there is no difference between elected officials as if all those votes on health care and a woman’s right to choose and immigration and education and declarations of war are just so much hot air when, in fact, those votes shape the way we have to live our lives every day.
Now don’t think I can’t see some of you shaking your heads at my Sixties-child rhetoric, reminding me gently that we know all that, but my question is, if we really do know all that, how come we don’t vote every chance we get? How come we don’t build on the legacy of all those brave souls who marched up to register when segregation was still the law of the land and they knew it might mean their lives and the lives of their families? How come we don’t walk proudly to the polls with the full knowledge that we are actually taking responsibility for what goes on in this country and not just fussing about what’s wrong with it.
And there is a lot wrong with it. I am not naive and these are tryin’ times. But Dr. King said: “You cannot get discouraged. 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.” It is our blessing and our challenge to be a part of that struggle every day because that is Dr. King’s real legacy and his greatest gift.
So here’s my suggestion. Let’s decide that we’re going to honor Dr. King twice this year. Once, by registering to vote and then again by actually voting in the mid-term elections and every election that comes after to put some people into office who understand what Dr. King meant when he said:
“I believe that even amid today’s mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men. I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that sooner or later, all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. If this is to be achieved, mankind must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”
Can I get an Amen?
Atlanta-based Pearl Cleage is a best-selling author and award winning playwright. Her memoir Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, and Love Affairs was published in April 2014 by ATRIA Books. She is a proud registered voter.
Post appears courtesy of Atria Newsroom.