I’ve been considering how to write this post for the last few days. Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes with as many narratives as there are narrators. His legacy is packed with plenty to choose from: He was the Black Radical, the Preacher’s Preacher, the Disciple of Christ, the Moral Leader for Economic Empowerment, Great Dreamer of Equality for All…He was prophet and poet, then became a martyr and a saint, and now he is a spectre who looms large over our most unequal times. Every stakeholder and constituent of our life and times can find one quote seemingly custom-tailored for them. If you don’t believe me, check your favorite social media stream.
As ever, when I think about this man on this day in this year we’re all living in, I think about the work. The work is never done. He knew that. Most of us know that. Many of us have gotten to a comfortable place, shrugged, and decided that it’s all “good enough.” Black people can do stuff white people can do. Great. Done. “It’s better than it was in the ’50s. Obviously.” The details blur or are willfully overlooked. Stories are buried and voices drowned out. It is what it is. It’s “better” now. It’s different.
But our integrated life has yet to be fully realized. The dream of our integrated life had always been about more than Blackness and Whiteness and water fountains and swimming pools. (Ya’ll know that. I know you know that. But still, it must be written.) The dream about our integrated life was about justice under the law that extended to every man. Economic systems designed for the nourishment and advancement of all. Healthcare that is accessible, equal and humane. A society that sees all people at all levels as fully human, even those who do the jobs that not everybody wants to do.
The integrated life that we live right at this moment is the most basic of the dreams that Dr. King was dreaming. Integration, being able to be in the same places as equal and whole and human, was a big ask, but only the half of it. What we’ve got right now is a most basic, very fragile, and fairly superficial practice of the integrated dream so many people marched, protested, screamed, endured violence, and/or died for. If you care to look carefully, the gains we made are slowly slipping away from us. Be it the slow re-segregation of schools. The gerrymandering and careful dismantling of systems for economic advancement. The zoning and community changes that make some places affordable and accessible and other places not.
And what of all the rest of it? The economics? The law? The government accountable to the people? The society built for the recognition and nourishment of all members?
That’s the work.
The work is never done. There was work to do before this administration. There will be work to do after it has been expelled and replaced. The work is active. It goes beyond acknowledgement, research, reading… the work requires your movement and your care. There are many ways to do it and every way is effective as long as it’s active and done sincerely.
This Integrated Life was hard won. Hard won. This Integrated Life requires work to maintain (or to achieve, really, if we’re being honest). Your work. My work. If you’re reading the quotes and listening to the talk and spending this day huddled in a warm place, I suggest you also ask yourself: where can do I some of the work? What work left behind is his spirit asking me to pick up and continue?
Choose the economic work: holding companies accountable for their behavior. Investing (or purchasing from) companies that do right by employees and communities. Lead efforts for raising minimum wage or closing the gender or racial wage gap. Work with organizations fighting the fight or directly get in touch with the lawmakers who represent you at every level of government. Speak truth about low-wage workers. Defend and support government employees (including teachers) who do a lot of work for less pay than their private-sector peers.
Choose the legal work: Vote for candidates and give money to organizations who don’t try to keep people from the ballot box. Demand from your local and state governments more accountability for law enforcement. Support measures that stop the harassment of poor people with use of court fines and jail time for seemingly nothing. Stand witness when representatives of the state choose to use their power to oppress, and intervene as you are able.
Choose the health work: Demand the healthcare be a right for all, and vote people into government on all levels who can make that possible. Support and nourish local organizations that bring health care to your community.
Choose the social work: There is a problem in your community that needs your attention and your service right now. Show up for it. Get your arms around it. Put your foot up in it. Take ownership of it. Latch onto it and do not let go of it.
Choose the religious work: if the spirit moves you, return to a community of faith if you haven’t been in a while. If the words speak to you, let them be written on your heart. Spread messages of joy, counteracting the oppressive messages of certain congregations with a hateful worldview. Embody the loving message of your religion, whichever it is, and carry it out into the world. Reclaim that space. Reclaim that identity. Martin Luther King’s doctorate was in theology. We shouldn’t overlook his faith. You shouldn’t overlook yours, either.
You don’t have to do it all. Start with one. If that’s all you can do, then do it well and tell others to join you. If you can do more, pick up something else.
It’s your work. It’s my work. It’s radical work. Work that takes time. Maybe a lifetime. This integrated life means we’re in it together: holding each other accountable, moving us forward with steady and stubborn diligence. This is how change is brought. This is how dreams become reality.
Until Wednesday, onward, and take care.