You don’t know me. Our paths never crossed. I was a just a baby when you left this world but I feel like I know you. You left quite a mark. I know what you stood for and I know how much you sacrificed during your time here. You, like all of us, had your faults, but the way you comported yourself in the face of hatred and fear was something truly amazing and admirable. Your steadfast message of peace, mindfulness, inclusion, empathy, justice, and dignity have been imprinted upon me. I think about your message often–especially in the aftermath of the many times I’ve failed to live up to it. As a student and teacher of history, I love and respect the fact that you understood our nation’s creed better than most of the men who put it down on paper. You spent most of your too short life trying to get people to see that we weren’t living up to that creed–that we never had. As a minister, you understood how God Almighty sees us–ALL of us. You tried to open the eyes of a nation, one that too often sees itself as God’s chosen people, to the fact that, throughout its history, it had been stripping a large segment of its own people of their basic human dignity.
While your struggle to effect change was rooted in your experience as a black man from the South, you were concerned with achieving equal rights and justice for people of all races, creeds, religions, and backgrounds. You famously related your dream of a day when we would all be judged by the content of our character above all else. You had a heart for all humans who felt the indignity of being mistreated by the circumstances of their heritage.
I’m writing to you to let you know how things have changed in the 50 years since you left us. There have been a lot of amazing developments–many of them good but some…not so much.
First of all, I’ll focus on the good. The legal forms of institutionalized injustice are, for the most part, gone. You got to see the beginnings of that before you left.
On that front, Martin, you’d be pretty proud of your country. Our system has been set up so that, on paper, the playing field is much more level than it ever was before. Of course, policy on paper and in the real world are often very different things. We still have a long ways to go to get the practices to catch up with the policies but, by and large, things have improved a great deal within our societal systems when it comes to equal rights.
You’d be pleased to know, for instance, that, for most Americans, mixed race marriages and biracial families don’t even raise many eyebrows these days. That’s not to say it’s always easy on such families–there are still plenty of ignorant people out there for them to deal with but it’s nothing like it used to be. Such unions have become so normal now that it seems almost impossible to believe that the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case was actually ruled upon in the first few months of my lifetime. Today, I have at least half a dozen friends who are part of a racially mixed marriage.
Martin, you’d have been thrilled to be here with us in 2008 when we elected the first black president–it was an awesome sight to behold! While I often wish that I had been born in a different time–to have been able to be eyewitness to some of the great historical moments about which I teach–watching that election unfold and the subsequent chill-inducing inauguration of President Obama was one of our nation’s great milestones I feel privileged to have been here to experience. No presidency is perfect and Obama had his ups and downs throughout his two terms but, considering the shape the nation was in when he found it, only the most callused and partisan of observers could claim that our nation was worse off in 2016 than in 2008. Obama can hold his head high as he looks back upon his legacy–a legacy that would not have been possible without the work you did in your time, Martin–as he led the nation though 8 years of steady growth and did so, always, with dignity and class that, in many ways, reminded me of you. It probably won’t come as a shock to you, Martin, to learn that, throughout his 8 years as president, Barack Obama was under near constant attack from the far right wing conservatives. They claimed he wasn’t even an American citizen. They claimed he was a secret follower of Islam. They claimed he hated American values. It was nonstop. It didn’t take long for the euphoria of that glorious scene from Chicago when Obama made his election night victory speech–a night when it felt we may have finally put our ugly racist past behind us–to fade back to the harshness of stark reality. Yes, we’d come a long way from the days of your America, but it was still abundantly clear, we hadn’t come far enough.
After Barack Obama’s two terms were complete, we elected a new president, of course. Due to the idiosyncratic nature of our electoral system, the winner of the 2016 election actually received 3 million less votes than the loser. The Electoral College gave us President Donald Trump. Trump had zero political experience and an equal number of qualifications to be president. But because he won most of the small Red States where few people live, he wound up–against almost everyone’s belief, including his and that of his own campaign staff–as President of the United States. Given the demographic make up of most of those little Red States, this felt like an obvious push back against President Obama. It felt as if the people in these Red States were saying with their votes–you had your chance, you had 8 years, we had a black president and it didn’t change anything, now we are taking our country back. As a matter of fact, Martin, Trump’s campaign slogan was Make America Great Again. He actually still says it all the time. It doesn’t take a stable genius to read between the lines of that slogan and see some pretty ugly remnants of the past–remnants you can relate to quite well, I’m sure, Martin. So, here we are, a year into the presidency of Donald Trump and, Martin, you wouldn’t believe the circus it has been! I’ll spare you most of the details because this is a letter, not a book. Suffice to say that most of what Trump has accomplished has been part of his overt mission to undo as much of what President Obama accomplished as he possibly can. And guess who is suffering the most from these actions? You guessed it, many of the same people from whom our nation has had a long habit of stripping the dignity–the poor, the sick and infirm, people of color, immigrants, homosexuals, women, etc. In a very real sense, President Trump’s attacks on the Obama legacy are an attack on your legacy, too, Martin.
As I write this letter, our nation has once again been turned upside down by the latest in a seemingly endless string of hateful and outlandish statements made by Donald Trump. In a recent hissy fit over immigration, the president was heard ranting and questioning why so many immigrants were coming to the U.S. from “shithole countries”–referring to Haiti, El Salvador, and certain African nations. He went on to lament that we didn’t get more immigrants from places like Norway. I’m sure you’ll agree with me, Martin, that there is no other way to interpret those comments but to label them transparently racist. What do the people living in the “shithole countries” Trump referred to have in common? How is that commonality vastly different from the lily-white residents of Norway?
Well, Martin, you’ll be relieved to know that Trump’s White House is reeling in panic and is in full-blown spin control since the overwhelming majority of people in this nation and around the world are lambasting the president over these awful statements. Only time will tell what comes from this latest scandal but, rest assured, most of us aren’t taking it lightly.
What you might find most troubling, as I do, is the fact that, throughout all of his scandal-filled year as president, Trump’s most steadfast support base has been, and remains, fundamentalist evangelical Christians. Even after the terrible comments about immigration last night, I have seen report after report of right wing Christians praising the president for having the guts to say what needs to be said. Can you believe that, Martin? As a reverend, that must sadden you as much as it does me.
So, that’s where we are in 2018 on the eve of the national holiday weekend set aside to honor your legacy, Dr. King.
I’m sure you are comfortable right where you are but, Martin, we sure could use you around here right about now.