President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
It’s certainly no coincidence that debate over the most significant piece of voting rights legislation in more than a generation is coming to a head as we celebrate the holiday dedicated to the United States’ preeminent civil rights icon.
While it’s a stretch to call the prevailing politically hued conjecture over the John Lewis Voting Rights Act actual “debate,” one still can’t help but wonder: What would the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. think about the current state of America in 2022?
On a day meant to bring people together, King would likely note that we couldn’t find ourselves farther apart. In his eyes, an amalgamated America would find its strength through its differences – cultural, philosophical and otherwise – and work together for the greater good. Instead we are focused more than ever on selfish individualism, protecting it with bastardized terms like “patriot.”
A master of the spoken word, King would no doubt have a thing or two to say about this. In fact, he actually did.
In August 1965, King delivered his “Birth of a New Age” speech in Buffalo, New York, for the 50th anniversary of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The message was resonant with his audience of Black men, who King called on to lead their communities. It was a time — and, it could be argued, it still is — when the country struggled to break free from a colonial mindset in regards to its treatment and consideration of African Americans.
Although King called upon the men of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity to which he belonged, to lead the way from that past, his words had — and still have — a much broader reach.
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity,” King said in the address.
Some of our political leaders have sown seeds of discord so deep that they have sprouted a garden of distrust that seemingly cannot be uprooted. It is from this state of weakness that they draw their strength. The farther we are apart, the more readily they can use fear and mistruth to propagate their own self-serving agendas.
How can we arrive at common ground in the spirit of compromise when we’re at a point where basic scientific fact and empirical evidence are ignored because doing so would jeopardize “freedom”?
It’s a stretch to think that even King, were he alive and in his prime today, could calm these waters. He hadn’t turned 40 yet when an assassin’s bullet ended his life at a Memphis, Tennessee motel, in 1968. The lines between his philosophical stances and political leanings grew increasingly blurred as he evolved from a religious leader and master orator to the leader of a movement.
Perhaps that’s the greatest influence King could have now in present-day America, filling the chasmic void of true leadership that is so acutely needed. Someone who not only speaks but also acts in the true spirit of a beloved community.
Listen closely and you’ll hear King’s voice, how he can still provide a beacon that guides us past the jagged reefs of self-preservation and isolating like-mindedness, and through this dangerous passage in history when our future course is so uncertain.
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