Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the second I have spent in Canada. Today, though, is really the first time in my life that I have had the chance to think about the day—and the man—isolated from concerns of having to go to school the next day. It might seem petty, and in fact it probably is, but days and holidays have a different sort of meaning attached to them when they can be something other than an opportunity to miss school or work. Indeed, last year as I saw friends posting about the holiday online, I felt a kind of distance from it, caused in part by being abroad and admittedly by anxieties over traveling back to St. Louis the coming day. This year, still feeling the distance from being abroad and disconnected from the pulse of the national dialogue, I can still better reflect on why and how we have dedicated this day to this man.
I often have thought how unpleasant a day the third Monday of January is. Now quite separated from Christmas, and oh so far removed from Easter, while often in the midst of the coldest and most wintry season of the year, it seems off-putting that we have bestowed on King such a mediocre day to mark his legacy. At the same time, if any placement in the seasonal calendar could better represent the struggles and sojourns of the movement for civil rights, I’m unaware of it. It might not be the “darkest evening of the year”, per se, but his birthday—January 15th—is one of the coldest in my book, and however off-putting, seems so well to encapsulate how far from the mountaintop, how far from redemption, we remain.
Today, I’ve spent much of my evening reading a long poem by W. H. Auden, “New Year Letter”, begun in the January of 1940 and detailing his feelings regarding the new year. It would border on asinine to note how the new year is meant to be a time of hope, of rebirth, a time to look forward instead of backward. And yet, just months into World War II, 1940 began with a bleak future ahead. Reports of dictatorial tyranny against Jews and other minorities were widely known, if too often whispered about, and the fight for the future of democracy, of decency, of human freedom was well underway.
Auden, as attuned as ever to human suffering, languishes in thought over the wide scale destruction in China and in Western Europe. The war, while omnipresent, is submerged in the text, rarely explicitly referenced . The mood of hopelessness associated with it, however, comes in like the tide, bashing the reader again and again, detailing in terms philosophical and religious the struggle ahead.
In many ways, it is a bizarre poem. There is a long section in which the wiles of Satan are chronicled, including his inability to lie. Instead, his ability to use half-truths to convert the populace to sinful destruction is noted and lingered upon, seen perhaps as the crux of sorrow in the world. Auden eventually makes clear, then, how evil cannot be negotiated with. It cannot be debated. Instead, he suggests what is now more a truism than is fair—evil can only be loved out of existence.
If evil is a fire, the oxygen it feeds on is ignorant hatred. As Auden wrote elsewhere, in the poem he would one day rebuke and unwrite (“September 1st, 1939”), “We must love one another or die.” And here, I am reminded of an apocryphal quotation I’ve seen from King: “It’s not us against them. It’s just us.” Many people misunderstand King’s philosophy to be one of quiet acceptance, or passive respect to the status quo. They can read “It’s not us against them. It’s just us” as a quotation of tepid homogeneity, that King somehow did not see race, or did not see class, or did not see political opposition. This week of all weeks, as the President-Elect has criticized the last remaining giant of the Civil Rights Movement, John Lewis, and as the spectacularly oblivious Rob Schneider leapt to the former’s defense by writing, “Rep. Lewis. You are a great person. But Dr. King didn’t give in to his anger or his hurt. That is how he accomplished & won Civil Rights”, I am forced to meditate on how disconnected from King’s legacy the nation seems to be. What does it mean to give in to anger? Is acknowledging that anger as one speaks passionately about injustice a sign of such a defeat? Is using that anger toward action such a sign? Was Dr. King so perfectly free from anger, as he watched violent pain inflicted on his friends and on himself, that he somehow transcended human emotion? And how can John Lewis, someone I have seen speak on human kindness and civic duty, be said to have given in to his own anger? Indeed, is speaking up in the face of injustice, something both King and Lewis are noted for, somehow akin to giving in?
This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I remember likely the greatest citizen my country has yet to produce. His greatness came not from lukewarm, Zen-like platitudes; it didn’t come from acquiescence; it didn’t come from blandly accepting the world as it was. His greatness came from a radical passion that drove him toward forcing the world to a reckoning with its hypocrisies, with its evils, with its silent sins. Tonight, reading Auden reminded me that there is no such thing in history as the march of progress—suddenly and abruptly, evil can emerge and a fight must be waged against it.
This January, that of 2017, when the world seems to stand in such a fragile place, when so many lives abound with suffering and contempt, when the whole of the post-war order seems to be crumbling and not for the better, I feel a kind of kinship with Auden’s anxieties. As his poem comes to a close, it begins to mediate, obliquely, on whether America’s moral fortitude and political ethics will lead it to fight against fascism. In 1940, that was still an open question. And as an immigrant to America, increasingly now inundated in its culture and history, Auden serves so well as a reminder that we do not, de rigueur, listen to our better angels and fall in on the side of compassion, of justice, of love. We must choose to do so.
Martin Luther King Jr. was not the exenterated teddy-bear that whitewashed history has made him out to be. Like Jesus, he came bearing a (metaphorical) sword, armed for holy battle against the unjust and unrighteous forces that be. But also like Jesus, King’s radical acceptance and preaching of love, of human kindness, remains as a testament to the best that humanity can and has produced. Some may misread that testament, may conflate love with acceptance. But we do not love our oppressors by allowing them to oppress. We do not love our critics by allowing them to subsist in lukewarm indifference or ignorance. We do not love the so-called silent majority by allowing it to remain blind to injustice and its own hypocrite silence. Love is the active movement to bring our neighbors toward their better angels, without coercion, without duplicity, without compromise.
Loving the world and attempting to build anything righteous or good in it is a choice. It’s a choice that poets like Auden and revolutionaries like King bid us to make, but ultimately it a choice that rests somewhere between our eyes and our scalp. When we march in their footsteps, when we attempt to make their radical dreams a reality, we are forced to reckon with their legacies of forthright action and conduct. We cannot be silent. We cannot be passive. We cannot settle for less.
We will never scale the mountain of injustice that way.
In order to triumph, we must marshal our passion and love for the world into vocal reproach, into nonviolent protest, into forceful upheaval. Or, as the honorable John Lewis might say, we must find some way to get in the way. To quote from the Congressman’s commencement address at my graduation, “We were beaten and left bloody. We didn’t give up. We didn’t give in. We didn’t lose faith. We kept our eyes on the prize. And as graduates, you must keep your eyes on the prize. You have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate to do your part. Help create a beloved America, a beloved world where no one is stepped on or left behind because of their race or their class.”
Martin Luther King Jr. did not march, did not fight, did not die for us to be silent in the face of injustice. And I, for one, won’t be. That, to me, is King’s legacy.