The January 15, 2018, cover of The New Yorker poignantly and powerfully juxtaposes the past and the present in our nation’s ongoing struggle for racial equity, depicting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taking a knee on the sideline between two NFL players. It’s a timely reminder with Martin Luther King Jr. Day just around the corner.
This year will mark the eighteenth that College Possible has celebrated MLK Day in reflection on King’s ideals and in service to our communities. Our first year, we marched through the extreme cold along Marshall Avenue from St. Paul Central High School to Concordia University with hundreds of other people singing some of the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement. When we arrived, we got the chance to meet with my friend, mentor and inspiration, U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone. Our entire team, including AmeriCorps members, was only about 30 people back then. But I remember how excited Paul was about the work that we had just launched, telling us that our service was an honor to the memory and legacy of King, and that each of us was making an important difference in the lives our students.
Central to honoring King’s legacy for me is revisiting his writing. Some of his most powerful and compelling ideas come from his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In April 1963, at age 34, he was jailed after leading marches and sit-ins in Birmingham, Alabama. The jail conditions were harsh, and without any books or notes (let alone a laptop and WiFi!), he began to write on the only paper he had: the margins of an old newspaper.
Piece by piece, he wrote one of the most potent documents in American history. The letter contains many of his most important ideas about the value of non-violence and civil disobedience to advance the cause of civil rights. Many of his ideas have powerful, if infuriating, resonance today as we continue to wrestle with the effects of racism in our own time:
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”
King would later describe the “fierce urgency of now” to capture the idea that when confronting racism, or other forms of intolerable injustice, there’s simply no time to waste. He also wrote in his letter about his growing frustration with the reluctance of many who seemed sympathetic to civil rights to actually join in the fight.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’”
When I read his words today I feel so much of the same frustration King did. This summer in Charlottesville, we saw the re-emergence of some of the most despicable forces in our history, ranging from the Ku Klux Klan to white supremacists to neo-Nazis. Two summers ago, just a few dozen blocks from College Possible headquarters, a St. Paul public school employee named Philando Castile was killed in his car by a police officer as his partner and her four-year-old daughter looked on from the back seat. Sadly, the list goes on.
Thanks to the prevalence of smart phones and other recording devices, the evidence of this injustice is now more visible and obtainable. But those who experience racial profiling and other forms of oppression know, as I – an upper middle class white male – never could, that racism has never gone away. It was just more covert. Yet even with this tangible proof of its existence, many of our fellow citizens remain on the sidelines, urging activists to “wait for a more convenient season.”
All of this can leave you feeling broken hearted, or maybe just plain broken. How can we have made so little progress? And where do we go from here? I confess I don’t have the answers to those questions. But whenever I feel a sense of despair, or a growing hopelessness about our country, I try to remember that change can only come from us. When Barack Obama first ran for president, he said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” We can’t wait for a new president or some other leader to show us the way. We must take action right now. Ourselves.
His words echoed those of Paul Wellstone who had once asked me and my fellow college students, “If the people in this room can’t change the world, then who can?” For the first time in my young life, I thought, “Wow. Maybe he’s right. Maybe I have something to contribute. Maybe I can really make a difference in the issue I care most about.” His incisive question lit a fire inside of me that ultimately led me to found College Possible.
I think there’s no more powerful idea than the notion that each of us can make a difference. As King famously said, “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” And it was Robert F. Kennedy who said “Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
On Monday, College Possible will celebrate MLK Day in six cities across the country with a team numbering more than 400 people. The ways we celebrate have changed since that first march 18 years ago, but the sentiment that guides us has not: it is up to each of us to create the change we seek in the world. It is up to each of us to stand up against injustice. It is up to each of us to create those ripples that will, given our collective energies, become the tide that turns injustice to equity. This is the belief that guides us on MLK Day, and the belief that powers our work at College Possible every day.