As we start the month of April, I find myself thinking about Martin Luther King Jr. It was on the April 4, 1968 that he was assassinated at the age of 39. This week marks the anniversary of King’s premature death. This is a good time to reflect on his visionary words.
Five years before his death – also in the month of April – King penned his “Letter from a Birmingham jail”. I feel like it could have been written today as an indictment on our public inertia when it comes to addressing the major social challenges of our day. In the context of the civil rights movement, King believed…
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
These words were written 50 years ago – in April 1963. Apart from his comment on the “efforts of men” rather than appealing to both men and women, these words could have been written in 2013. In Canada we don’t face quite the same issues of racial injustice that King denounced in his generation. But oppression and discrimination still exist. Opportunities in this country are not evenly distributed and the gaps are growing.
For my part, I am increasingly convinced that I need to take a more active role in helping to build a fair society. Social progress is not inevitable. Now more than ever, we are at risk of social stagnation or even regression. I realize I could be one of the people that King talked about if I remain silent about the plight of some of the most vulnerable members of society. In his letter, King went on to say…
“I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
Though I hate to admit it, I have to assume I’m part of the “oppressor race”. With that realization, I look to King’s statement and wonder about how I should respond. It starts with a recognition of those who are oppressed. The next important step is to understand their yearnings; and then to help root out injustice with the utmost determination.
In his 39 years of life, Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished far more to advance social justice than most people do in a lifetime. But he did so by motivating his contemporaries of all races to speak up, stand out and take action along with him. I want to honour the memory and the message of King by facing the issues of this generation with the kind of passion and resolve that have been inspired by his legacy.