It’s certainly no coincidence that the debate over the most important suffrage legislation in more than a generation is coming to a head as we celebrate the holiday dedicated to America’s preeminent civil rights icon. .
While it’s a stretch to call the politically dominant conjecture about John Lewis’ Voting Rights Act a real “debate,” one still can’t help but wonder: what would the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther think? King Jr. of the current state of affairs? America in 2022?
On a day meant to bring people together, King would probably notice that we couldn’t be further apart. In his eyes, a united America would find its strength in its differences – cultural, philosophical and otherwise – and would work together for the greater good. Instead, we focus on selfish individualism more than ever, protecting it with bastard terms like “patriot.”
Master of the word, King would no doubt have something to say about this. In fact, he did.
In August 1965, King delivered his “Birth of a New Age” speech in Buffalo, New York, for the 50th anniversary of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. The message resonated with his audience of black men, whom King called to lead their communities. It was a time – and, one might say, still is – when the country was struggling to free itself from a colonial mentality when it came to its treatment and consideration of African Americans.
Although King called on the men of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity to which he belonged, to point the way to that past, his words had – and still have – a much wider scope.
“An individual has not begun to live until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to reach the larger concerns of all humanity,” King said in his speech.
Some of our political leaders have sown seeds of discord so deep that they have grown a garden of mistrust that seemingly cannot be uprooted. It is in this state of weakness that they draw their strength. The further apart we are, the more easily they can use fear and lies to propagate their own selfish agendas.
How can we reach common ground in a spirit of compromise when we are at a point where fundamental scientific facts and empirical evidence are ignored because it would jeopardize “freedom”?
It’s a stretch to think that even King, if he were alive and in his prime today, could still those waters. He was not yet 40 when an assassin’s bullet ended his life in a motel in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968. The boundaries between his philosophical positions and his political leanings became increasingly clear. blurred as he evolved from religious leader and master speaker to leader of a movement.
This is perhaps the greatest influence King could have now in America today, filling the chaotic void of much-needed real leadership. Someone who not only speaks but also acts in the true spirit of a beloved community.
Listen carefully and you will hear King’s voice, how he can always provide a beacon that guides us beyond the jagged reefs of self-preservation and likeminded isolation, and through this dangerous passage of the history when our future is so uncertain.
This story originally appeared on Louisiana Illuminator, a publication of the States Newsroom and sister site of the Minnesota Reformer.