Today our country celebrates a man whose legacy is defined by his efforts to procure civil rights for African-Americans. As a black man, I am thoroughly grateful for MLK Jr.’s courageous leadership during the Civil Rights Movement. The election of our nation’s first African-American president would not have been possible if it were not for the labor that King’s generation put forth. And my hope is that as millions of black Americans head to the polls this November, we would not take for granted the sacrifice our ancestors made for us to exercise our right to vote.
Yet, if I’m honest with myself, this day has met me with sorrow in my heart. Recent occurrences of police brutality have forced myself and many other black Americans to question if MLK’s dream to see African-Americans judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” will forever remain only a dream.
While police brutality is certainly not new to the black experience in America, as the years go by, progress in the fight against racial animosity seems minimal at best. For many African-Americans, hope for an America that respects the God given rights of black people has dwindled. In his book Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, I believe, captures the intergenerational despondency that black people feel concerning racism in America. Coates, reflecting on his son’s reaction to a grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown writes:
That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 P.M. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it. (11)
We can add to Brown’s case verdicts of no indictment for Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice. All of whom were arrested and/or killed by police for no justifiable reason. These examples testify to the ugly reality that blacks cannot trust the justice system to punish law enforcement for the deaths of innocent blacks. Therefore, hope for a more perfect union—a union that values the worth of black lives—is understandably met with poignant skepticism as each passing generation of African-Americans experiences the same expressions of racial hatred as the generation before it.
A Stone of Hope
The injustices that perpetually plague my community do leave me with a sense of discouragement. Is it possible that Martin Luther King was misguided? Was his vision for American society hopelessly naïve? Despite MLK’s seemingly lofty dream for a better future for African-Americans, I do not believe that he was blind to the overwhelming challenges that racism imposed. In his famous “I Have A Dream” speech, MLK spoke of “a stone of hope” out of a “mountain of despair.” MLK realized that despair was as large and insurmountable as a mountain, and hope was, in comparison to the mountain, small and almost non-existent.
However, despite the fact that hope was small in comparison to the mountain of trials that African-Americans faced, MLK was committed to inspiring a generation to fight for their rights. He realized that it did not matter if indeed little hope existed for his righteous cause; if there was any hope at all, it was worth persevering through all of the suffering he endured in order to fight for what was just. MLK had a realistic view of what he was facing, yet he knew that with God, all things are possible.
Today, as I reflect on King’s legacy, I gain inspiration from his fighting spirit in the face of almost insurmountable odds. I believe that we must accept this same paradigm today. We are not idealistic optimists, nor are we hopeless pessimists. We do not know if MLK’s dream will ever fully become a reality, but as long as there is a stone of hope, we must honor MLK by fighting for it.