As we ready ourselves to observe today’s holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., I am reminded of how the lives of King. and President Lyndon B. Johnson were defined by their times and how both men seized that opportunity to further define the culture and politics of that era.
Their common fight against discrimination led from the streets of Selma to the Oval Office and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law prohibited discrimination, but I doubt that either man believed that would end the practice of racial inequality. In fact, Johnson said, “It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. … To this end equal opportunity is essential, but not enough.”
King sacrificed his personal safety and life to open those doors of opportunity for the poor, the disenfranchised and the marginalized. As a young woman, I witnessed the crowd in Washington, D.C., when King took to the podium after a long day of speeches, and I felt the power of his words.
He asked questions about fairness, social justice, economic opportunity and peace that we are still seeking the answers to today. The lessons of the modern civil rights movement span generations, circle around the world, criss-cross our differences, and unite men, women and children of conscience in political action even in eliminating homelessness today.
In 1963, King said, “We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”
As we celebrate in 2014, King’s life is a reminder to all of us that now is the time to create a new reality that seeks social and economic justice for those locked out of mainstream America and those struggling for human dignity in every corner of the world.
Celebration is essential, “but not enough.” If we are to celebrate King’s life with integrity and honesty, it is “not enough” to study his teaching one day out of the year; it is “not enough” to righteously rally for the cause of the moment; it is “not enough” to remember the dream, we must be accountable for helping to realize the dream for generations. The promises we make in King’s name must be as earnest as his courage, as inclusive as his faith and as unflinching as his battle for equality, justice and peace.
The Promised Land is within our grasp but reaching for it will simply not be enough.
The celebration of the birth, life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. commands our earnest commitment to justice for all, to the principles of fairness and nonviolence and to peace not war. This historic day gives each of us yet another chance to celebrate the man and the cause while we take action.
The Atlanta King Center’s yearly theme for 2014 is “Remember, Celebrate and Act.” Make this day not just a day of remembrance and celebration but a day of action, action in service of others, action in service of those less fortunate, disenfranchised and marginalized. Through action we can best honor the life and legacy of King by continuing his fight, not resting on our laurels and congratulating ourselves for a job yet unfinished.
Shirley Franklin, Former Executive Board Chair for Purpose Built Communities, is the Barbara Jordan Visiting Professor of Ethics and Political Values at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, and former mayor of Atlanta.