When I first moved to Michigan, as I was finding my place in Ann Arbor and Detroit, a friend recommended the book Why We Can’t Wait by MLK. My friend, her husband, their four kids and dog all moved to a home in a neighborhood off of Livernois to live out their mission and dream of working in inner-cities. They’ve been living in this house for a few years now and are learning daily what it means to give themselves fully and unconditionally to loving their neighbor- regardless of socioeconomic, cultural, spiritual, and racial differences. The voice of MLK has provided the historical perspective for them to understand what has been fought for, and perhaps what work has yet to be done.
I was thinking a lot about the book as I participated in a couple of events on MLK Day. The legacy of MLK was infused with spiritual fervor. When they sang songs like “We Shall Overcome,” people sang boldly, crying out for liberation. They sang so that they could be free to walk into any public space without discrimination, that services would not be denied to them because of the color of their skin. They sang for courage to stand and march in protest without lifting a finger against their aggressors who would seize them, handcuff them, and throw them behind bars. They sang for the recognition of their humanity all across the United States. They sang for their own souls to know its worth.
I deeply desired to sing as boldly and as loudly. And I did sing (sorry, neighbor.) But, it lacked…something. Undeniably, Hill Harper spoke with energy and passion. As did Aisha Fukushima in her beautiful performances ‘Butterfly’ and ‘Flint.’ During the Circle of Unity, we even sang “We Shall Overcome” and other songs attributed to the movement. But the audience participation was muted. We were, in fact, an audience and at best, did what was expected of us.
This is not a condemnation. For what the Keynote was, the committee that organized the event did a good job finding people to speak passionately, entertain the audience and to highlight the central message of the symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Now.” Voting matters, Flint matters, Black Lives Matter. But I couldn’t help feeling like most of us in the room, including myself, were merely spectating. The call to action was good, the energy was good, but what is it that we are really fighting for?
What am I fighting for? What are the urgent matters in which I am attending to that causes my soul to sing and find its worth?
This is a reflection. The power of MLK’s legacy was not simply that he was a great man and did good work. The power in his legacy is that he fought for Truth, and the Truth sets people free. It’s set me free, and I have to fight to know Truth in my own life so I can continue to be free.
In the spaces in which we sang and shouted yesterday, I sang and shouted loud enough to be heard. But I knew that wasn’t enough. There needed to be unity of purpose in those spaces, and that cannot be contrived without a sense of trust and community that was present in the movement that MLK and others led. Or to express it in another way, a unity of spirit.
It also isn’t as simple as alignment with one political party, although that is one practical step in seeing greater diversity in positions of power.
I believe the revolution that we are facing in this fierce urgency of now, especially as Americans, is the hypocrisy of our own souls. I am dissatisfied with simply being a “good person” because being a good person is just not enough. What I mean is that the approval of people is not enough. I need to be personally committed to righteousness in my daily life, to excellence and integrity in the words I say, the actions I take, the work I do. And I need to receive an abundance of grace and mercy to know that I can have patience with my shortcomings, and therefore, patience and compassion for other people.
To return to the example of my friend, the reason that her and her family are driven to go to places outside of what was once her normal is the fact that they love God, and are following the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” To love God wholeheartedly and my neighbor as myself is also my purposeful journey, and also the legacy of MLK. MLK went so far as to love his enemy radically, by growing their souls to acknowledge the worth of a person’s humanity. I believe we can do the same.
Note: Some people reading this may be concerned about gentrification of the neighborhood that my friend has moved into. I would love to hear your concerns and critiques and whether they are in fact contributing to a potential problem. It may be a good conversation for another post.