MLK Day: Injustice anywhere

Ysabela Golden

As someone who grew up in a predominantly white area, having Martin Luther King Day as an actual day off of school is a weird experience. It’s not that we didn’t know it was a national holiday, it’s just that for some reason we all decided to celebrate that national holiday by having a bunch of elementary schoolers write poems about being nice and called it a day. I don’t know what member of the Grand Haven school board decided it was appropriate to commemorate an assassinated civil rights activist by having an hour anti-bullying presentation – probably the same one who decided Dr. King’s main political point was that “we shouldn’t be mean to each other” – but I guess they decided that was more respectful than giving us the day off. 

I always thought having to sit through a version of Dr. King’s teachings that my school had watered down enough to be politically inoffensive was more of a karmic punishment for his untimely death than it was a celebration of his life. But now in our country’s current time of dysfunction and distress, I find the whitewashing of his message even more demoralizing than ever. All those years of sitting at my desk and listening to smiling school officials explain how Martin Luther King Jr. just wanted us to all get along with each other, the world around us was becoming more and more divided due to the same issues King had spoken about while he was still alive: poverty, war, voter suppression and over-incarceration. I heard Black Lives Matter criticized for “obstructing traffic” and being “disrespectful” by the same middle class white neighbors who praised Dr. King, who protested the same way for much the same reasons, as a hero with a dream every American could share. 

But we’re not even living up to the watered-down version of the legacy he left behind. Our government is more partisan and polarized than ever, having far surpassed our country’s record for longest shutdown over the construction of a wall that’s more nationalist metaphor than actual border security. Trump is trying to push the pressure of negotiations on the new democratic majority, but a number of those representatives are moderates voted in by conservative states who would love to and have tried to negotiate on a larger budget for actual border security. The environment they’ve found on Capitol Hill is so divisive that they’ve been unable to make any headway in ending the shutdown through the kind of bipartisan negotiation that used to be commonplace. Now, nobody’s willing to “all get along.”

This Martin Luther King Day, if we’ve moved past the opportunity to shake hands and sweep our disagreements under the rug, then so be it. Let’s skip past the annual touting about of the non-threatening and non-confrontational version of Dr. King who “had a dream” that we’d all be nice to each other. Instead, let’s honor the radical resistor who fought for peace, yes, but peace as a result of justice, not of complacency. Right now, that includes justice for hundreds of thousands of unpaid federal workers being held hostage by the shutdown. It also includes justice for the immigrants being held in detention centers and separated from their families. It definitely includes having a government that fights for racial, gender and economic equality of its people – not put its own functions on hold and endanger the whole country just to keep other people out.