Reflections on MLK Day

Once again, MLK Day found us camping out, but due to unforeseen circumstances. We had planned to take Cloud 9 in to the repair shop for a dryer fix, but that had to be postponed until next weekend. And we thought we would have to take Maya in to the vet each day for a bandage change (she had a growth removed from her paw), but the vet had other plans. So we settled into Loyd Park for what was likely to be our last regular weekend at the campground. A recent increase in camping fees has us reconsidering Cedar Hill State Park as our weekend destination of choice.

The change in plans gave us ample opportunity to reflect on the life and legacy of Dr. King. It’s still somewhat hard to believe that a man who had received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35 would die such a violent death just four years later. In the last speech of his life, Dr. King said “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place.”

Now that we’re in our mid-50s, we’re more appreciative than ever before that longevity has had a place in our own lives. More than recognition or achievement, we treasure the time we have together.

The legendary American ballerina Suzanne Farrell once said “Nothing is born with all its plumage—you grow into your feathers.” The older we get, the more we understand the virtue of patience as we grow into our feathers, increasingly aware that the task and the thrill of loving each other is a lifelong process with unpredictable challenges.

The day of his assassination, Dr. King had written down the title of his next sermon: “Why America May Go to Hell.” He didn’t write a word beyond the title, so we’ll never really know what he intended to say. But considering his focus, at the end of his life, on economic justice, it’s not hard to imagine.

By 1968, he envisioned a change in America that was more revolutionary than mere reform. Citing the systematic flaws of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism,” Dr. King argued that “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” He felt that Congress had shown “hostility to the poor” by investing so much in the nation’s military might.

Dr. King went to Memphis in April 1968 to support sanitation workers who had been on strike for nearly a month demanding higher wages and better treatment. Because Jon’s own father worked the last dozen years of his life as a sanitation worker, Jon not only has a personal connection with public workers, but also an understanding of the conditions they faced at that time. Working the trash route in those days was hard work, and it had to be carried out regardless of the weather. Back then, trash containers were industrial-style metal cans that had to be lifted and emptied by hand into the back of the truck. It was backbreaking labor, and Jon’s father, who was then in his mid-50s, came home at the end of the workday completely exhausted.

More than 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated, America is still struggling with economic and social disparities, as we’ve seen the unequal distribution of wealth, income and opportunity only get worse. What might he have thought of our current situation, when a person can work a full-time job at the current federal minimum wage and still be impoverished? What would he have said about our ongoing housing crisis, when so many hard-working teachers and first responders and public workers are simply unable to afford a place to live in a decent neighborhood? What might he have done about fact that so many people are priced out of a higher education and, as a result, denied the opportunity to improve their lives? What would this icon of nonviolence said about the rancorous public discourse that has come to dominate America’s politics and mired our nation in seemingly intractable conflicts?

“America may go to hell.”