Dr. King, Inauguration Day and Our Democracy

In the coming days our nation will be marking two occasions:  the national holiday honoring the life, service and leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the peaceful transfer of power from one presidential administration to another that we call Inauguration Day.

For me, both days will be emotional.  Both days call for reflection.  Both days demand our renewed commitment to the ideals that our country aspires to live up to.

Dr. King devoted his life not only to creating better conditions in his day, but to creating a better future. He challenged us to be as good a nation in practice as we are on paper, and his struggle for justice changed America and inspired civil rights movements across the globe. He understood that the remedies for discrimination and injustice can be found within our public institutions. And he believed that those institutions and laws, and the resilient American spirit, make us unique.  (Many excellent classroom resources for teaching about Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement are available on the NEA website.)

Inauguration Day has always been bittersweet. Those whose candidate won are jubilant. Those whose candidate lost are disappointed. The traditions of having all the living past presidents of both parties sitting on the stage to witness the swearing-in is designed to show Americans that whether or not you supported the person elected, that person is now president, and the ceremony draws a bright line between the end of one administration and the beginning of another.

To say that I’ll be among the “disappointed” on Inauguration Day would not do justice to what continues to boil inside me. I said before the election that Donald Trump was uniquely unqualified, morally and temperamentally, to be our president.  Election Day did not change that.  Inauguration Day will not change that. 

But I have been reflecting on Martin Luther King, Jr. He understood that acknowledging the political power of elected leaders did not mean letting their actions go unchallenged.  He understood that the pomp and ceremony of an inaugural parade were nothing.  Dr. King understood what democracy looks like.

He knew that after the celebrations comes the hard work of advocates and principled rabble rousers to hold powerful politicians accountable for doing the work of ensuring justice in access and opportunity and respect for all.  In “Where Do We Go from Here?” a speech Dr. King gave in the summer of 1967, he urged us not to rest until we achieved what we are capable of.

Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.”

In that speech, he offered the perfect encouragement for the times we’re in:

“I must confess, my friends, the road ahead will not always be smooth. There will be still rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. … Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. … Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

In “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” a speech Dr. King gave only days before he was murdered, he urged us to stay alert and engaged, recounting the story of Rip Van Winkle’s 20-year slumber.

“Yes, he slept through a revolution. And one of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.

The proximity of the King Holiday and Inauguration Day suggests “a kind of moral momentum, a verification that the will toward democracy wins out in the long run,” writes Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker. It’s an idea President Obama echoed in his eloquent and moving farewell speech.

“Yes, our progress has been uneven,” he said. “The work of democracy has always been hard, contentious and sometimes bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.”

I don’t think it was intentional to place Martin Luther King, Jr. Day so close to Inauguration Day.  But intentional or not, it serves us in this moment.  Dr. King reminds us that, yes, democracy looks like a citizen walking into a voting booth on Election Day and casting a ballot.  But democracy is bigger than Election Day.  Democracy calls on us all to face those with political power, fight against injustice and to fight for a better world to raise our children and live our lives.  Now is our time to heed a national hero who gave his life, pushing the moral arc of America toward what had only been a dream.

We all must do “the work of democracy” to protect the ideals and rights we hold sacred. For ourselves as well as our students, their families, our communities and our world, we have the responsibility to stay awake, stay engaged and keep marching toward justice for all.

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