On Wednesday, we will remember history.
On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., we will remember by reading columns and op-eds analyzing King’s life and legacy.
Perhaps we will watch a video or listen to a recording of one of King’s speeches.
Or perhaps we will join in spirit with the crowd expected to converge in Memphis at the Lorraine Motel — now the National Civil Rights Museum — where King was killed by a sniper’s bullet as he stood on the second-floor balcony outside his room.
Somber reflection and retrospectives are appropriate. King’s murder was a dark day for all Americans who care about justice and equality. Remembering his life and the values he stood for is especially important now, when overheated, bigoted rhetoric from the highest levels of government stand in stark contrast to King’s eloquence on behalf of our common humanity.
But after the remembering, then what?
There’s a wave of civic engagement and activism now bubbling up across the country, in the spirit of the radical King who spoke out against the Vietnam War, supported striking black sanitation workers and chastised white moderates who espoused gradual change. Catching and riding this wave might take us a step closer to the racial and economic justice King envisioned.
As Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, put it during a speech in Memphis as part of #MLK50: “Pick a cause.”
There are plenty to choose from.
There’s the movement against gun violence, led by teenagers who took to social media and organized the March for Our Lives in a call for sensible gun control. Young white teens who saw their schools shot up and classmates murdered joined with young black teens who lost friends and family to the gun violence plaguing their communities. Now that they’ve marched, they intend to vote.
King surely would have joined with them, at the march and at the polls.
There’s the fight for a living wage. The federal minimum remains at a meager $7.25 per hour. But more cities and states, including Chicago and Illinois, have passed laws creating higher minimums in the wake of activism by the Fight for $15 campaign and other efforts. We’re still far from the $15 per hour — $31,200 per year — that activists are fighting for. But there’s progress, and that’s in King’s spirit too.
As he said in Memphis, “It’s a crime in a rich nation for people to receive starvation wages.”
There’s the pushback against anti-immigrant sentiment that first emerged last year as thousands of Americans flooded airports across the country to protest a Trump administration travel ban targeting immigrants from Muslim countries.
King, who believed in our common humanity, surely would have stood with those protesters and with those who continue the fight against xenophobia driven by bigotry.
There are unionization drives popping up, among groups as diverse as adjunct faculty members at local colleges and universities, teachers at some Chicago charter schools, and media outlets including The Onion (based in Chicago) and the Los Angeles Times.
Much like the fight for a living wage, this movement for better working conditions and pay is in the spirit of economic justice that King championed.
There’s the push for police reform that is a necessary step in bridging the divide between police and the black community. Here in Chicago, Black Lives Matter and other groups sued to join the negotiations over a reform consent decree. That has given the community a seat at the table. It’s a step forward that citizens want and deserve, and surely the officers who do their job with fairness and respect want it as well.
These aren’t the only causes that would get us closer to achieving King’s vision. Any effort on behalf of equality counts.
Remember King today. Then follow Holder’s advice: Pick a cause, and run with it.
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