MLK’s timeless message for a divided nation

Rick Dandes
The Sunbury Daily Item TNS
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights in Chicago on June 21, 1964.

Few people are as synonymous with a moment in time as Martin Luther King Jr. is with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s in America.

King sought equality and human rights for African Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and all victims of injustice through peaceful protest.

Resonating: During this time of partisan rancor and divisiveness, does his message still resonate today?

Harvey Edwards, a professor at Susquehanna University and a former teacher in the Selinsgrove School District, said he believes it does, albeit in a “narrow” way.

“I say that because I think most young people believe. But when they hear Dr. King, they think only of nonviolence as his forte for protesting,” he said.

“Martin strongly believed in protests by standing up to injustices, not just for Black people, but for anyone who was oppressed. When what he advocated is narrowed down to believing he was ‘just’ about nonviolence and equal rights for Black people, that is where many young people might not have a sense of the gravity of what he was trying to do — changing our society and bringing about equality for everyone.”

Divided nation: Martin Luther King Jr., Day arrives Monday amid an increasingly divided nation and days ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden and his Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris will make history as the first female to hold the vice presidency.

King’s message works in today’s divisiveness because it is timeless, said Bucknell’s Cymone Fourshey, acting director of the Griot Institute for the Study of Black Lives & Cultures and an associate professor of history and international relations.

“He had a very real concern about racial injustice, but he also had a very strong message about social class, and that is absolutely relevant for today,” she said.

His message, she said, is timeless in that he was fighting for justice for all groups — not just for Black Americans. “I also think there is something to be said today for nonviolent protests.”

Equality: In that way, the Black Lives Matter protests were not out to diminish one group at the expense of another, Fourshey said. “The BLM movement has been saying, we want equality. Equality under the law. We want the same things that you have. A lot of that derives from what King was doing.”

If you question people about King’s assassination, Edwards said, and what he was doing in Memphis, “few would know that he was supporting sanitation engineers who were striking. People probably think he was there for some equal rights march for Black people. That is where I think some of his message is lost today.”

Fourshey believes students today don’t learn as much about the history of the civil rights movement, and nonviolent protests so that when they are threatened while protesting in the street, there is an instinct to be defensive. That can escalate into violence, she said.

“A strong component of education is necessary to prepare people to be nonviolent,” she said.

Because some of today’s young people may lack familial role models who lived during the era, they may not have heard King’s message. That is why education is so important. Those stories helped keep the message alive, she said.

‘Keep it relevant’: The question Fourshey asks is: “How do we keep Martin Luther King’s message going? We have to find a way to keep it relevant.”

King’s message is not lost on Sierra Medina, 20, of Selinsgrove.

“The teachings of Martin Luther King have been extremely integral in forming my perspective and intrinsic motivation toward social justice work, especially as a Christian,” she said. “But I would agree with the notion that some or most young Black Americans today would take a step back after hearing Martin Luther King’s imperatives and questioned whether or not he knew what it took to enact deep structural change.”

Medina has read some articles written by King and said she was floored by his dedication to inclusion, “even when surrounded by visceral hate. Martin was a young worker when he first encountered lower class poor working whites, and though obviously, they didn’t deal with discrimination based on their appearance, a lot of their struggles were the same.”

So, King called for liberation through love and true unity, which isn’t a quiet deflective peace, the peace of loud chains hitting the floor, Medina said.

Racism: King wasn’t quick to call anybody racist, Medina said.

“He didn’t want to define people by racism but rather calling out the individual racist acts, making it not an identity factor,” she said. “What was so amazing about him is that his calling on humanity to be better and greater actually gave him a deep abiding motivation toward that outcome.”

What’s different with today’s Black Lives Matter movement, Medina said, “is that we are tired. We are tired with blanket statements of peace when there is no peace. We are ragged and exhausted from false ploys toward unity with no systemic change. So the very notion that we should have compassion on our oppressors like Martin Luther King did may be a foreign notion to many.”

Lewisburg businessman Nisan Trotter, co-owner of Trot Fitness in Union County, connected King’s message to more recent events.

“When considering the tragic event that unfolded on Capitol Hill,” Trotter said, “the message of Dr. King is needed equally now as when he was alive.”

A long road: America, Trotter said, still has a long road ahead of learning how to express issues of racial equality, social justice, and political reform in a peaceful manner.

“I cannot speak to an individual’s sentiments of how Dr. King’s message connects,” Trotter explained, “but collectively, our nation has drastic room to grow in making sure his words and actions spur us on to living better together in unity.”

King’s words, in many ways, have lost their meaning and significance with today’s youth, suggested the Rev. Brian Johnson, of Milton.

“In many ways, this is in part due to the commercialization of King’s words,” he said. “His words have been misused and taken out of context and resorted to little than a sound bite on Facebook. His overall message of equality for all has been obfuscated because our self-absorbed culture has caused individuals to be more concentrated on self and less concerned about others.”

Asked if any leaders are following as leaders in Martin Luther King’s footsteps, Edwards said “leadership is more diverse. Some people are doing great work with regards to the movement, Black Lives Matter, the # (hashtag movement) that is trying to bring about equality for women. We don’t necessarily know these names of giants because of social media.”

Using social media, people can gather a group of people and get them excited about, as U.S. Rep. John Lewis once said, “getting into some good trouble,” Edwards said. “Our society has de-centralized protest leadership, so as whereas you might have otherwise had a Jessie Jackson or a John Lewis walking in Dr. King’s footsteps. Because of the anonymity of social media ... who are the leaders?”