“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
On the day in which we celebrate the life, achievements and influence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I find myself searching his writings for some hope and inspiration in a time that feels especially dark.
Over the past weekend, I was consumed with the appalling story that made international news. In videos shared across social media, a group of young men from Covington Catholic High School in northern Kentucky appeared to surround and mock Omaha elder Nathan Phillips as he played a peaceful song on a drum. This story and the images of young people on a school trip in Washington, D.C., laughing and taunting Native Americans during the Indigenous People’s March while wearing “Make America Great Again” hats, affected many people. These images really hit home for me because Covington Catholic High School is a short 10 miles away from my home. I have friends who graduated from there and at one time it was on a short list of high schools to which we may have considered sending our son.
In watching those videos, I’ve experienced a range of emotions — anger, sadness, shock and shame. As a parent, it made my heart hurt to see teens, on a school trip, engaging in what I viewed as racist and disrespectful behavior on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, of all places. During the opening plenary of the 2018 StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network Convening, I spoke of the hope and inspiration I feel when I see young people uniting and tapping into their collective power to spark change and improve lives. After seeing the videos over the past weekend, my hope and faith are admittedly shaken, and I am searching for answers of what I can do.
In my personal life, I have used the videos to open up a dialogue with my own children. We have talked about white privilege; respect for other cultures, traditions and elders; and how to intervene when friends engage in behavior that is disrespectful. In my community, I have been speaking out against those who defend the actions of the young men, even if it means engaging in tough conversations with friends and family members. I’ve lost a few Facebook friends as a result, and that’s OK. And in my work, I have been searching for what we can do to prevent this type of behavior and address it when it happens, particularly as a white leader for racial equity.
Last year, my StriveTogether colleague Robert Harris wrote a blog about “The collective impact work of MLK” in which he posits that as a network, “we are keepers of the dream and the work of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is our work.” On this day, I believe this with all my heart. In “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?” the Rev. King wrote of hope and his belief that all Americans must unite to fight poverty and create an equality of opportunity. This book was written more than 50 years ago, and yet the key themes still resonate in 2019. He wrote that “something is wrong with the economic system of our nation” and he called for a coalition of African Americans and whites to come together to make both major political parties truly responsive to the needs of the poor.
Those of us doing this work in communities know that systemic and structural racism continues to drive the disparities we see in our schools and the inequitable distribution of wealth across this country. And we cannot stand for this. Fifty years after Rev. King wrote about these issues with such urgency, how much progress has been made? Are we slipping backward? After this past weekend, I worry that without vigilance and unity we very well might.
I also have viewed the videos that came out after the initial story about the teens — videos that show a group of Black Hebrew Israelites, who were involved in a protest, insulting the teens. I am deeply troubled by what I saw in those videos as well, but it does not change my perspective on the behavior of the teens when Mr. Phillips approached to try to peacefully defuse the situation. I’m also saddened by the deep division on this issue that I’ve seen on social media and in the news. Our country continues to experience the tremors of white supremacy and inequity. It’s clear to me that we still have so much work to do to fulfill the Rev. King’s legacy and his dream that this nation will rise up.
I have written about my racial equity journey before. I can admit, with deep shame and remorse, that a few years ago I very likely would have watched the videos, shook my head in disappointment and stayed quiet, sitting comfortable in my white privilege doing nothing, saying nothing. I can’t and I won’t do that anymore.
The Rev. King’s words remain relevant more than 50 years after they were written. In the conclusion of “Chaos or Community,” he writes: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity … This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”
In the work that we do across the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, we choose community over chaos and we act with a sense of urgency in our work to build more equitable systems that get more equitable outcomes. Equity IS the work that we do — and, wow, do we have our work cut out for us! But I believe we can get there. And we must engage and tap into the energy and authority of children and youth as we do this work. In nearly 70 communities across the country, we can, and we will achieve the Rev. King’s dream of the “beloved community” — a society based on justice, equal opportunity and love of one’s fellow human beings. We have to. The future of mankind depends on it.