A pause for democracy, a pause for hope
Reflecting upon the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Beyond
At this early stage of this highly anticipated 2021 new year, inaugurated by the most blatant, violent and direct attack to the structures of democracy in the history of the United States, and after having concluded one of the most ominous years of our lifetime, we still must have hope. In the words of Dr. Cornel West, who recently virtually visited our university, we have to become prisoners of hope. Dr. West, a profound scholar of the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., understands hope, and in contrast to optimism, as a compelling but difficult challenge in the quest for social justice, for democracy.
Unlike optimism, which can be superficial and unjustified, hope requires a clear and concrete understanding of the struggles to be encountered. Hope, therefore, demands true and active commitments; importantly, hope needs of real courage. Unlike the at times romanticized visions rendered on the figure of Dr. King, West reminds us of the real and painful rejections King experienced from some of his former friends and allies over such issues as his denunciation of the Vietnam War and his call for resistance, as well as his support for the multi-racial, multi-ethnic Poor People's Campaign.
Taking these examples, out of his strong commitments to non-violence and his belief in the fundamental need of standing in solidarity with all groups and faith communities that were committed to justice, King never understood the struggles in distinct or separate ways. Importantly, this commitment to solidarity, as shared humanity, did not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, an obscuring of difference, or “color blindness”, amidst glaring race-based oppression. Instead, it is a call to address difference, and oppression, in more genuinely inclusively ways. As Paulo Freire, also a follower of King and a strong influence on West, has pointed out, solidarity in this sense, is a capacity to confront “not only the oppressive situations that we seek to escape, but also, to remove ourselves from that piece of the oppressor that has been planted deep within us for generations.”
Without a doubt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most revered political figures of our American history for a number of reasons, one of those being that 53 years after his assassination, his consciousness remains not only as relevant as ever, but the significance of his political thoughts still being fully understood. Inspired by his truly extraordinary legacy, and as a way to commemorate Dr. King’s birthday, let’s mark the date by asking ourselves a number of critical questions: What does it mean to be an American? What is democracy in the United States, what has it been, what is now, and whose interests get represented? And crucially, what and how can democracy be a more evidently diverse, inclusive and equitable reality, a truer expression of shared hope and solidarity?