I’ve been staring at this blank screen all day. For the past five days, actually. Traditionally on Martin Luther King Day, I write some form of a reflection. It’s ironic that in a time we’re facing that has never more closely mirrored King’s — I find myself most adrift from his words.
I say his words because it is his words that have so often been called upon in to soothe a nation that still searches for its soul. Familiar words taught to me in childhood that once brought solace — “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you have to do, you keep moving forward” — now leave me cold and distant. I know “the arc of the moral universe is long” and was certainly never naive enough necessarily to believe in a Dream, but damn I didn’t know it would hurt like this.
I don’t mean to sound self-pitying. The Civil Rights Movement itself was defined by uproar and awakening. There’s nothing — not a pandemic; not nationwide uprisings after the continued state-sanctioned murder of Black people by the police; not seven-hour waits at ballot boxes and legal elections being questioned and irreparably damaged by a white supremacist who stokes racial unrest; not even insurrection — that’s worse than what Black people have fought and faced down and banished before. But I’d hoped by now that we’d at least be fighting newly cloaked battles in new ways, not a flat circle of the exact same battles in the same exact ways. King said “we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end,” a mantra he proved true with his own life. 12 days ago I watched as a Confederate flag marched through the Capitol, a feat that wasn’t even accomplished during the actual Civil War, and even though I know (I know) it’s awful, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking: What the hell did he give it all for?
Less than six days before this Martin Luther King Day, Ayana Pressley, a Black woman representative from Massachusetts, one of the most powerful advocates for Black and brown people speaking up in Congress right now, announced that in the days before a lynch mob descended on the U.S. Capitol, all of the panic buttons in her office had been ripped out. Her Puerto Rican colleague, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who much like Pressley has become somewhat infamous in hate mongering white supremacist circles, openly feared for her life. And here’s what I can’t stop replaying: Representative Pressley’s response to this violence? These experiences “were harrowing and unfortunately very familiar in the deepest and most ancestral way.”
The deepest and most ancestral way. Latosha Brown, one of the fierce Black women organizers in Georgia who just finished a momentous feat overcoming white supremacist tactics of voter suppression with her organization, Black Voters Matter — a cause King laid down the blueprint to fight for over 60 years ago — reminded us on Dr. King’s birthday just this Friday: “The same energy that killed him is the same energy that we witnessed at the Capitol.”
It’s feels impossible not to see this Martin Luther King Day as one of grief and mourning.
But Black liberation politics is one of turning impossibilities into stubborn realities. I mean, someone once told enslaved people it was impossible they’d be free. And so, while I am immensely grieving how clear it is now how much work is actually left, how little it feels like we’ve come as nooses are hung outside the Capitol building and Twitter threads are full of Black people warning each other to “stay at home, stay safe” like we’re whispering into the wind, I’ve realized that the reason I couldn’t write this essay was that I was looking in the wrong place. We don’t need Dr. Martin Luther King’s words — we need his actions.
On Wednesday there will be a new President, and he will be a Democrat. That is no reason to rest; it’s only a reason to push harder. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 happened under a Democratic President. The original Voting Rights Act of 1965 happened under a Democratic President. Dr. King and was a never-ending thorn in Lyndon B. Johnson’s side — an exceptional political organizer and strategist — and so too, should we. And even that will only be a start.
The good news, the best news even, is that we have already been doing that. The key is in not letting up. To recognize these newest waves of vitriolic flames of hatred as also a marker of our work. Dragons breathe the hottest fire when they feel threatened. And good. Let them.
This morning, I thought a lot about another Black organizer, a mentee of King who was only 23 when he was not only one of the lead organizers, but spoke at the March on Washington. Who was 25 when police brutally beat him on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in a march for voting rights which he led. Another giant lost in this agonizing year.
John Lewis left us on July 17, 2020 — in the middle a summer defined by uprisings for Black Lives — but his final goodbye was not published until the morning of his homegoing service. In it, he wrote a public letter to Black Lives Matter organizers: “Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me. In those days, fear constrained us like an imaginary prison, and troubling thoughts of potential brutality committed for no understandable reason were the bars.”
Of course, those days are also now, he realized. But unlike me, he didn’t become brokenhearted. Instead, he found peace knowing the work would continue. It will always continue, as long as we don’t let the fire die out.
“While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society…
That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”
It’s funny. So often we talk about how Dr. King — or John Lewis, or Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Bayard Rustin, so many who others have walked before and are now immortalized — are more than their black and white photographs and grainy newsreels. But we’ve never less needed paper doll cutouts of revolutionaries than we need right now.
In our upheaval, soft words will not save us. Look to the playbook instead.