Each January we invoke the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King on his birthday to remember the impact of his life’s work and impact on race relations in the United States and around the world. Unfortunately for many, the day comes, we reflect and the day goes and it isn’t until a moment of racial violence disrupts our consciousness, an act of racism on a campus, or a televised lynching of a Black person demands leaders to invoke his words or ideology to assist us in our own sense-making of the racial injustice everywhere. We need to regularly reflect on Dr. King’s philosophy and vision because the legacy of his movement provides us a measuring stick of progress on the arc of the moral universe. Nearly 53 years ago, Dr. King’s organization of the Poor People’s Campaign aimed at addressing systemic oppression, racism, and economic justice. While progress may be acknowledged, the pandemic has exposed the effective failure of our society to embrace the tenets of this campaign and the most vulnerable in our society.
When I reflect on the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 and its revival, this past year and the past ten days, I find us at a crossroads with ideology and reality. I am challenged with the experience of living in two democracies – the ideology of American democracy and the reality of the democracy of America. The American democracy we all know, it is the one we teach in schools across the country, each year the creation story of the United States of America becomes more complex with stories of triumph of good over evil. We are provided with knowledge about how our democracy functions to create balance of power, to provide equal representation, your inalienable rights, and the words repeated each morning in a pledge to a flag representing a democracy that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all” become an ingrained essence of your identity as a citizen. To some degree this version of our country emboldens you with pride and hope, and for who we are as a country.
American democracy, the one that was attacked by white supremacy and nationalism with the insurrection on our capitol has been under attack for generations. The other is the democracy of America which you and I experience and it differs depending on who you are in the creation story of the United States of America, what land was stolen from you or you were stolen from. The insurrection on the capitol has brought memories of a history many Americans either do not know or have turned their back to understand. Many of us think about our nation’s capitol as the sacred hall of democracy because of what it stands for as a place of hope, peace, justice and during my many trips there, a space of reflection and possibility. When I saw the capitol under attack I wasn’t surprised, because these same ideologies and white supremacists have been terrorising BIPOC communities everyday in America. In contrast to the sanctity of the capitol, what about the sanctity of our communities, homes and places of worship? While many were shocked, I was unfortunately not surprised by the violence because it triggered for me attacks on the Tree of Life Synagogue, Emmanuel AME Church, Pulse Nightclub; the history of slavery including enslaved African American laborers who built the U.S. Capitol, Chinese exclusion, internment of Japanese Americans, children in cages because of our xenophobic immigration policies; and the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Ruben Salazar, Medger Evers and Emmett Till.
From the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968 to now, in a recent C-SPAN interview, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill has powerfully expressed so clearly the vulnerability of both our need to find voice, speak up, and be a positive force for social justice and racial equity in a pandemic, the reality of everyday life of being BIPOC in the democracy of America regardless of a pandemic – “This in so many ways is representative of what it means to be Black in this country, to be vulnerable, and that is, in what way will I risk death today, not will I risk death today. In what way, that is the choice you have given me.” Dr. Hill points to the daily consciousness of BIPOC communities, if we stay silent we risk death, if we march, we risk death, if we speak up against systemic oppression, we risk death.
I condemn the violent acts of the insurrection on our capitol, a stain on American democracy and a darkening of the stains we have lived with for generations and actions that have ironically shaken the ivory walls of power that have shaped this very insurgence. The burden of democracy sits with the most vulnerable among us, the Poor People’s Campaign spoke to the realities of American society. We struggle together to find the bonds that connect us to American democracy, even understanding when those connections may be recognizing our role as both oppressor and oppressed.
On this day Dr. King inspires us to defend democracy – “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.” We have a responsibility to the moral narrative of American democracy by recognizing the counter-narrative of the reality of the democracy of America. If these were two sides of a coin, to see both sides you need a mirror and in that reflection you must see yourself. It is in this reflection that we must find the intersection of our truth, dialogue, violence, political position, justice, facts, courageous spaces, and the impact of our choice to remain silent or address the silencing of others. Regardless of where you find yourself, we must commit to an authentic dialogue of understanding ourselves and others, so that we may travel the arc together.
Please learn about our unfinished work and how you can get involved in the Poor People’s Campaign today.
Mark Kamimura-Jimenez, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs
Dean of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion