Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: What MLK & His Movement Mean to Me & America

Every year leading up to the Dr. Martin Luther King holiday, I usually give a glorious history of the early civil rights movement here in Falls Church. But instead this year, I give my thoughts on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and what the movement means to me, and to America. The word “hero” is tossed about in our society very cavalierly. According to Dictionary.com, a hero is “A person noted for courageous acts or nobility of character.” Someone to be looked up to and revered. We can only wonder what Dr. King would think of where our nation has moved since his passing in 1968. Have we really moved towards fulfilling Martin’s Dream that he so eloquently spoke about on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on that sunny day in August of 1963?

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is my hero, an uncompromising man who stood up in the face of eminent danger or the possibility of brutality. His was a moral struggle to bring about equality and civil rights to those who were denied them, even though the United States Constitution stated that citizenship, equal protection under the law and the guarantee of the right to vote to all who were born or naturalized here in the United States by law.

King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech was not only aspirational, but also illustrative. But, have we aspired to its tenants? Unfortunately, most of us only know the last third of this speech and we neglect to embrace what was said in the first two-thirds of his speech. King starts out by saying, “ Five score years ago, a great American in whose symbolic shadow we stand today signed the Emancipation Proclamation…But 100 years later the Negro still is not free.” After which he goes on to illustrate the many ways in which African Americans have been marginalized between 1863 and 1963. But, all we remember is the aspirational parts where he spoke about “I Have a Dream.”

Attorney Bryan Stevenson, the biographical character in the recent movie, “Just Mercy,” said in an interview on The Root.com “The great evil of American Slavery was not involuntary servitude, it was this myth that black people are not as good as white people, this myth of racial hierarchy of white supremacy. And, we’ve never really dealt with that.” Stevenson goes on to say, ”Slavery doesn’t end in 1865, it evolves.” He notes how the end of slavery begets a century of lynching and Jim Crow, and now since Nixon’s “War on Crime” and Clinton’s “War on Drugs”, are used to justify over-incarceration and excessive force and punishment of African Americans in the American justice system. We must do better in the next 50 years since the civil rights movement.”

So, I don’t think that a simple apology, like the one President Bill Clinton gave in 1997 and the U.S. House of Representatives offered in 2008, is sufficient to solve this issue. A serious conversation, and then concrete steps needs to take place to address the inequities in our nation. This may be difficult because of so much polarization in our politics, but as Dr. King said, “ We must either learn to live together as brothers (and sisters), or are going to die together as fools.” We’re all in the same boat. Racism is holding America back. It reminds me of Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.”

What happens to a Dream Deferred?

Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore-

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust over like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I think Dr. King would be pleased with the breaking down of some of the racial barriers and the appreciation of our diversity in Northern Virginia. The Dar Al Hijrah Islamic Center, Tinner Hill and the Eden Center are a testament to Falls Church and Fairfax County’s appreciation of diversity.

So on this Monday, Jan. 20, on the National Holiday in Dr. King’s honor, let’s start having this conversation. But also, honor Dr. King by holding all manner of events such as, marches, day-of-service projects to help bring about a day when people will no longer be judged by the color of one’s skin, but rather by the content of ones character.

So, please come out at 10 a.m. and march from the Tinner Hill Monument to the Falls Church Episcopal and learn about the use of eminent domain, where at 10:30 a.m. you can sign up for community service with the organizations that will be there, and at noon listen to our speaker for the occasion, Joan Mulholland who participated in the Freedom Rides and the Sit-Ins in Arlington and in Mississippi. I hope that you will come away inspired.

Edwin Henderson is founder of the Tinner Hill Heritage Foundation.