Civic, Civil, Civility

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was born on this day in 1929. Despite the shortness of his life, his impact on this country—and all of us—for the better is still important today. So on his birthday, I feel that it is necessary to address the events of January 6 in Washington, DC.

I am not a stranger to political protest. Although I was too young to understand the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, I grew up under Communist rule and, in November of 1989, was one of hundreds of thousands of people who marched in the streets of Prague demanding free elections and an end to the single-party Communist governance. This “Velvet Revolution” was achieved peacefully, using Dr. King’s methods: civil disobedience, civil resistance, peaceful mass demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts.

So it was alarming to watch a violent attack on our nation’s Capitol, a space that belongs to all of us. And it was more alarming to see the Confederate flag carried through the halls of Congress for the first time in history, a makeshift scaffold and noose erected on the building’s grounds, and shirts emblazoned with the name of a Nazi concentration camp. And as troubled as I was, I could only imagine how people of color felt.

Dr. King wrote eloquently about the long and painful history behind those and other symbols. He also inspired this country to reject their use and the racism they represent. To truly experience how he impacted the United States, I would urge you to listen to his words in his own voice. Recordings can be accessed here, and videos of five of his speeches here.

He saw this country, not as a mass of individuals randomly held together by geography, but as a single being with its own identity. Thus, problems with the country were seen, not as divisions, but as a sickness affecting the health of the whole. The injustice done to some of the citizens hurt all of the citizens. That there was a need for people in authority to recognize that “their destiny is tied up with our destiny,” and “their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

The history of inequities impacts every single one of us. We see it when people decline to take a vaccine because they don’t trust the system offering it. We are shocked by it when the gaps in medical care are highlighted by the difference in COVID-19 outcomes in different racial groups. And we feel it when our colleagues and co-workers are treated differently than we are—whoever your “we” is.

Today is a good day to remember that our “we” needs active, dedicated attention and expansion. By learning more about each other and building relationships, we are taking the first steps to understanding ourselves and improving all of our lives.