Reflections for MLK Day: May Our Grasp on Dr. King’s Vision, However Seemingly Tenuous, Not Weaken Further
By Ken K. Gourdin
I have tried to make it a tradition in recent years to do something related to the “holidays” on the calendar such as Martin Luther King Day; something which will mark the day as at least a little more significant than simply “a Monday off,” or a day to do things on a weekday that I normally don’t get to do, such as going out to eat or going to the movies. In that spirit, in recent years I have tried to read the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” each Martin Luther King Day.
Arguably, I am not a member of “an oppressed group” (I say arguably because I am disabled.) Still, any oppression I have experienced is far more difficult to quantify than the racial oppression decried by Dr. King: if anyone has, for example, made a decision to not hire me (or otherwise to treat me differently) based on my disability, that person at least has had the good sense and tact enough not to leave behind a trail of “smoking gun” e-mails saying, for example, “He has stellar qualifications, but we don’t want anyone with Cerebral Palsy working for us!” Nor have I ever engaged in the systematic oppression of others. However, notwithstanding my lack of membership in a racial minority, I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude: had it not been for him and others like him, not only would there likely not be a Civil Rights Act, there likely wouldn’t be an Americans With Disabilities Act, either.
Given my lack of “oppressed” status and my lack of membership in Dr. King’s other intended audience (anyone who would oppress another based on race), perhaps his rhetoric (and I use that term, not in the derisive sense that unfortunately has become attached to it, but rather in the most honorific sense possible) should not resonate with me as much as it does.
Still, I can’t help but be a fan of good rhetoric: I’m a fan of language, of words, and of any instance in which I believe those things are well put together and well used. Dr. King was especially good at doing those things; and the “history buff” in me has always been a fan of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the significant events that occurred in that era: the Civil Rights Movement, the space race, the Cold War, and others. Dr. King, of course, was the seminal figure in the first of those events.
I’m not a pie-in-the-sky optimist. Are there still people today who, contravening Dr. King’s vision, would judge people, not by the content of their character, but rather by the color of their skin (and by similar inborn traits)? Unfortunately, yes, and they belong to all races. But fortunately, such views today are much farther from the mainstream than they used to be. Fortunately, most all people of good sense and good will are quick to marginalize such views. Perhaps our current state of affairs could be summed up in the aphorism, “We’re not where we could be, we’re not where we should be, we’re not where we oughtta be . . . but thank goodness we’re not where we were.” Do we have a long way to go? Without a doubt. But I know I’m not alone in the hope that Dr. King’s vision did not die with him.
I believe Dr. King’s assertion that, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” At the risk of overbroadening its application, I might extend its reach: I might say that injustice to anyone, for any reason, is a threat to justice for everyone, and that injustice toward a person based on disability is no different than injustice based on race. In both cases, someone has determined to not treat an individual as a whole human being, but rather to treat him on the basis of a single characteristic: no single characteristic, no matter how significant, can encompass the sum total of a complicated human being, made up of a complex and enormous variety of traits. Consistent with Dr. King’s vision, I wish to be judged, not on the single characteristic of my condition, but rather on the sum total of the content of my character.
All of us—whatever our race, creed, or station in life—are beneficiaries of Dr. King’s vision. And the world is a better place because he, however briefly, inhabited it. May we not forget those things each Martin Luther King Day.