Today, we in the U.S. celebrate Martin Luther King Day, honoring the legacy of Dr. King. Jesse Jackson, Sr. has an opinion piece in The New York Times reflecting on what this great civil rights leader might have thought about the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow. Jackson writes:
What would Dr. King, who spent much of his life changing conditions so that African-Americans could vote without fear of death or intimidation, think of the rise of the nation’s 44th president? I can say without reservation that he would be beaming. I am equally confident that he would not let the euphoria of the moment blind us to the unfinished business that lies ahead. And he would spell out those challenges in biblical terms: feed the hungry, clothe the naked and study war no more.
While I know that some of my friends on the left (especially many of my queer friends) cringe at any reference to ‘biblical terms,’ but I think it’s important to remember that the civil rights movement was steeped in a progressive social gospel that interpreted the Bible as a text of liberation, not one of oppression. And, I agree with Jackson’s assessment that King would have spelled out the challenges we face today in terms of a social gospel to feed those who are hungry, clothe (and house) those in need, and work for peace not war. Increasingly, people are taking the MLK holiday as a day of service, and many of those efforts will get people involved in soup kitchens and food pantries, feeding the hungry and the homeless. We should also recall that Dr. King was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, and reinvigorate our commitment to ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ironically, one feature that often gets left out of the efforts on the national day of service is any discussion or push toward anti-racism. This seems like a missed opportunity to me, and one that I’d like to see change. In my view, MLK Day should be a time for those who are committed to anti-racism to talk about the strategies of the civil rights movement and address what’s left to be done. And, make no mistake, there’s still plenty work to be done. If you’re unsure about how to get started taking action against racism, I suggest Damali Ayo’s steps as a good beginning place:
Jesse Jackson closes his piece in The New York Times this way:
We should celebrate the election of our new president. And then we should get back to work to complete the unfinished business of making America a more perfect union.
This is what we must do about racism, as well, on this important holiday. Celebrate the wonderful accomplishment of the election of the country’s first ever African American president. And, then we must continue the work of dismantling all forms of racism.