In the span of one week our country has gone from celebrating the remarkable life of one of the most recognizable and selfless leaders in modern American history to contentiously ushering in the administration of one of the most divisive elected leaders in recent memory. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights leader whose birthday we celebrated on Monday, lived a life and left a legacy of peace, love, morality, and non-violence. In his short life, he inspired millions to see beyond the systems that unjustly ascribed them to binary positions based on race. He led the fight to not simply dismantle them but to reconstruct them in justice and fairness to all regardless of race, gender, and economic status.
Mohandas Gandhi, the social justice reformer whose philosophies and teachings influenced Dr. King, was once asked what his message was to the world. His response: “My life is my message.” His non-violent leadership of the Indian independence movement inspired movements for civil rights and freedom around the world for generations. If we look at Dr. King’s life his message is clear as well. One of the reasons that after almost half a century since his death, millions of Americans annually celebrate his life packed in churches…and community centers…or peacefully parading down our city streets…or finding ways to serve others. “It should be a day of service,” his widow Coretta Scott King said before her death, “…a way to transform Dr. King’s life and teachings into community service that helps empower and strengthen local communities.”
This idea – that our lives are our messages to the world – was in the forefront of my mind as I participated in the various King Day events in the region. At the Annual MLK Walk in Riverside, I stood with hundreds of Riverside residents including City Councilman Andy Melendrez, Police Chief Sergio Diaz, Fire Chief Michael Moore, and UCR School of Medicine Dean Deborah Deas, and reflected on the impact that Dr. King had on the cause of social justice. At the Annual Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches King Breakfast in San Bernardino, I joined close to one thousand others and listened to a fiery and impassioned address delivered by Dr. Daniel Walker.
I’ve known Daniel since we were kids and I have seen him deliver some great speeches, but his articulation of how history informs our current climate presented through the prism of Dr. King’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break The Silence” Speech delivered 50 years ago, was extraordinary. Dr. Walker explained that during what became the last year of his life, Dr. King experienced a “true freedom” to address inequities beyond race and started to question the systems of racism, poverty, and militarism. The highly criticized speech against the war and the policies that created the war is considered the most controversial speech of his career. But like Dr. King, Dr. Walker admonished, “we all need to look at the system not the symbols” as we enter a new era in American politics and government. We have to be people of conscience and activism. “We’ve seen this before,” he said alluding to potential threats to our civil liberties and the sense of dread and despair half the nation is feeling, “and we’ve survived, this ain’t nothing new!”
Both events also honored people in our community who have devoted their lives to the cause of justice and equality for all, and who have used their skills and talents to change the system of oppression that Dr. King fought so assiduously to dismantle. Like him, they are people of conscience and activism. That is their message. If someone asked you to articulate your message to the world, what would your answer be?