Every year, we pay homage to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the month of January. Most offices are closed, kids are home from school and people generally enjoy the day off from their normal routines. But how many of us take the time to emulate Dr. King’s teachings? How many of us actually understand the fight he waged on our behalf? How many of us emulate his nonviolent dedication to defending the poor and seeking economic justice in society? In 2012, instead of just verbally praising Dr. King, we should continue his quest for equality and tackle today’s greatest civil rights challenges: leveling the playing field for everyone, fighting voter suppression, establishing stricter gun laws, a commitment to end international potential warfare and providing a quality education in our most impoverished areas. Then and only then will we truly understand the depth and meaning of celebrating Dr. King’s life, legacy and purpose.
One of Dr. King’s last efforts prior to his untimely death was the Poor People’s Campaign. Combating issues of economic justice and housing for the poor, the campaign included an ‘Economic Bill of Rights’, and efforts to lobby elected officials to pass progressive legislation. Because Dr. King intently understood that the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in society were the poor, he dedicated much of his own life to giving them a platform, fighting for their rights and creating a society where they would no longer be dehumanized. Today, as many politicians cut vital programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance, the poor are increasingly watching their concerns fall on deaf ears and their voices drowned out in a sea of political wrangling. That is precisely why we cannot sit silently in the face of oppression. Until the weakest among us are afforded the same opportunities as the wealthiest, we cannot in good conscious accept that the fight for justice is complete.
One of the greatest civil rights achievements we ever obtained was the capability to vote. Long denied the very basic ability to participate in the electoral process of the nation we helped construct, African Americans spent years post-slavery battling poll taxes and other discriminatory practices in order to secure the promise of one man, one vote. After some literally gave their lives so that others could one day participate in the democratic process of this nation, we are now watching that very core human right once again under attack. Passing ‘voter ID requirements’, several states have taken it upon themselves to alter the way in which citizens elect their next leaders. A poll tax by a new name, these voter ID laws are nothing more than intimidation tactics to keep the poor and people of color away from the polls. It is the most egregious and outrageous form of voter suppression we have ever witnessed in our lifetimes. And it is a blatant attempt to reverse the very work Dr. King dedicated his life to.
When it comes to communities of color in the U.S., one of the most tragic realities we face is the rampant rise in gun usage and violence. We can argue as to the root causes of this rise — whether it be poverty, lack of jobs, inadequate schools, lack of opportunities — but the fact remains that it is our children we are burying and our families that are being torn apart. The larger question is, why are these guns so readily available? As the national rise in violence reaches epic proportions, we must create strict national gun laws, and we must establish programs to diminish this senseless violence. Whether it’s conducting gun buyback events, creating more alternatives for people to resolve their disputes, providing counseling where it’s often needed and seeking increased employment/opportunities for the disenfranchised, we must work together to save all of our collective futures.
If Dr. King were alive today, another issue he would tackle head on would be increasing warfare around the world. As a man of the cloth and someone who embodied peaceful protest, he was always fervent in his anti-war stance. At a time when potential international warfare threatens stability in many nations and pushes us at home into deeper debt, we must look at potential conflicts through his lens.
And finally, no society can advance to the next level if all of its children do not receive the same quality education. As I’ve stated many times in the past, education is often times the key that opens the door to entirely new possibilities and helps to equalize the playing field like nothing else can. But when a child doesn’t receive adequate education because of his/her socio-economic status, then we have failed as a nation. As perhaps our greatest modern civil rights struggle to date, good education is something we must ensure all children receive regardless of their race or income status. We agreed that ‘separate but equal’ was separate and unfair; now let’s work to create a united, equal educational system for all.
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends,” were words spoken by the great Dr. King. As we gather to honor this civil rights advocate, let’s remember to pick up the mantle and continue the good fight, for there are many obstacles which remain. So let us not celebrate in silence, but commemorate with our actions; do something today to bring justice for tomorrow.
Reverend Al Sharpton is the president of National Action Network and host of PoliticsNation on MSNBC.