On April 4,1968 – half a century ago today – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s life was cut short in Memphis, where he was fighting for dignity and justice for black sanitation workers.
Last night, I joined a special service at Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, a church held a special place in Dr. King’s heart. When Dr. King studied theology at Boston University, it was the Twelfth Baptist community that supported him, that lifted him up – and that he lifted up.
Dr. King and countless other unsung heroes of the movement were engaged in an all out fight to create an America that lived up to its ideals – an America that fought for the least of these.
So they sat-in where they were told they didn’t belong. They stood up when they were told they should cower. They marched where they were told they could not go. They rode. They voted. They ran for office. They spoke out. They lifted their voices until the entire nation heard them. And they changed the course of history.
When Dr. King acted, when he led, he showed what was possible. Here’s one example: The black-white wealth gap has existed for as long as we’ve measured it. It is a measure of the persistent racism that kept black families from building a future. But the civil rights movement showed that real change was possible. The new laws passed opened up economic opportunities for African Americans. And it mattered. From the mid-1960s to 1980, the black-white wealth gap shrunk by 30%.
It was because of Dr. King, and the many others who were called to action, that laws were changed and we started to see progress. Dr. King showed what was possible. He took action – and he helped make change.
But as Dr. King noted, “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle.” And so it has been with our efforts since Dr. King’s death.
As America’s commitment to expanding opportunity began to wane, injustice began to reassert itself. Tax cuts for the wealthy won out over investments in educating our children. A criminal justice system destroyed families and whole communities. A banking industry was turned loose to prey on communities of color. Black families were targeted for deceptive mortgages and payday lending.
In one generation, from 1980 until today, the black-white wealth gap has tripled. Voting rights are under attack. The criminal justice system disproportionately incarcerates black and brown citizens. Violence against black men and women has not disappeared, and they disproportionately die at the hands of those sworn to protect them. We remember their stories. We say their names. Sandra Bland. Freddie Gray. Michael Brown. Stephon Clark. And countless others.
Fifty years after Dr. King was gunned down, and now, we face another moment of challenge. We are called to act.
Like Dr. King and those countless other unsung heroes, we must meet every challenge, not only with a good heart, but with a determination to take action and an unshakable faith that we will overcome.
In the words of Dr. King, “if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment. And we must say now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”
- We will fight to end voter suppression.
- We will fight for working families – to make childcare available, to make college affordable, to increase the minimum wage, to lower health care costs, and to fight back against big banks that prey on their customers.
- We will fight to end the epidemic of mass incarceration that destroys people, families, and communities, and we will demand equal justice for all.
- We will fight to protect the lives of 800,000 Dreamers and hundreds of thousands more from Haiti and El Salvador and Nicaragua with Temporary Protected Status.
- We will say, loud and clear, that black lives matter. And when a racist bully talks about people who march with white supremacists and Nazis as “very fine people,” we will fight back. When he refers to countries in Africa with disgusting language, we will fight back. And when he uses hateful rhetoric to push discrimination in America – you better believe we will fight back.
We will fight for justice, for opportunity, for equality for all.
It is up to us to answer Dr. King’s charge to make the American Dream a reality, to make real the promises of democracy, to take back our country.
Not just for wealthy and the powerful, but for all people, for the least of these.