On Wednesday night, the Senate failed the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when Senate Republicans (and two “Democrats”) voted against legislation that was necessary to change the filibuster and secure the safe passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. This untimely defeat has left me and many other Americans frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed. The timing of this vote seems important to note. On Monday, a day designated for honoring Dr. King, politicians made commitments, statements, and tweets about the importance of his legacy. While some may have been genuine, for many who voted against the bill on Wednesday, I ask: How can you “remember” Dr. King’s legacy on Monday and actively work against it later the same week?
This hypocrisy is one we see each year as politicians and policymakers alike espouse the teachings of Dr. King, professing a commitment and understanding of his life’s work yet not reflecting it in their own work. Many lawmakers referenced his iconic “I have a dream speech,” focusing on the need for unity, empathy, and understanding. However, if you are truly going to speak about remembering the legacy of Dr. King, you cannot pick the pieces that suit your narrative by speaking only about unity, but not understanding his calls for security, peace, and equity.
KING’S CALLS FOR SECURITY
Dr. King was more than a peaceful advocate for change, he was a provocative, innovative, and forward-thinking leader who was not hesitant to articulate the realities of systems that were not only creating insecurities for Black people in America but, also, destabilizing security for people across the globe. When reflecting on his work for racial justice, he alluded the importance of this work in conjunction with a more peaceful world stating:
“These two issues are tied together in many, many ways. It is a wonderful thing to work to integrate lunch counters, public accommodations, and schools. But it would be rather absurd to work to get schools and lunch counters integrated and not be concerned with the survival of a world in which to integrate. And I am convinced that these two issues are tied inextricably together, and I feel that people who are working for civil rights are working for peace; I feel that the people working for peace are working for civil rights and justice.” (Feb. 6, 1968)
Dr. King was forgiving but clear in his instinct and demands for change. He was indignant and understood that we cannot live in shame of wanting a more peaceful and just society. He understood the importance of the duality of fighting for his proximate security threats of racial injustice and inequity, but also the need to oppose “the bomb,” war, and speak out about the militarized policing across the global color line that affected all.
The multifaceted nature of Dr. King’s beliefs about the fight for peace, justice, and civil rights is something that is missing in today’s fight for safety and security.
Dr. King understood that to truly find equity in this world, you cannot only fight for one rung of society. He recognized that while safety and security look different for different segments of the population, there were still insecurities that affected all. While the proximate security threats for Black Americans at the time of the civil rights movement were discrimination, segregation, and their fight for racial equity, they still could still amplify the issues and insecurities that might affect all people in a fight for a more just and peaceful world. This is still true today.
HONORING DR. KING’S LEGACY
The multifaceted nature of Dr. King’s beliefs about the fight for peace, justice, and civil rights is something that is missing in today’s fight for safety and security, not just by politicians and policymakers, but also by people who are working in movements such as nuclear and national security writ large. As we reflect on the impact of Dr. King, we must think broader than his fight for equity and the end of racial segregation, but we must also look to his teachings about a multifaceted and multidimensional understanding about safety and security.
This week as we reflect on the legacy of Dr. King, the security field must start a new conversation looking at his legacy, centering the equitable needs of all people and working to make them secure. We must root ourselves in his understanding that “the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power” (“The Three Evils of Society, Opens a New Window,” 1967) and “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death” (A Time to Break the Silence: April 4, 1967) As the field does its work, we must reflect on his teachings that we can both acknowledge the proximate security threats of communities, while also igniting change on larger existential threats.
We must identify solutions that are both humanistic but also courageous. It is our duty to carry on this mantle, unapologetically acknowledging that justice cannot be achieved without “radical changes in the structure of our society…” It is almost 50 years since Dr. King was assassinated, and we are still fighting many of the issues he stood for. As we continue to reflect on his legacy on this and future Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Days, do not pick and choose the narratives you want to support. Do not give communities platitudes of understanding. Instead, do the work it will take to make this world a more safe, secure, and equitable place.
Mari Faines (She/Her) is a social justice, diversity & equity activist, podcast host, and the current Director of Communications and Outreach for Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her research specializes in conflict resolution, transitional justice, and racial and systemic disparities.