MARTIN LUTHER KING DAY

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Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking. (Photo by Julian Wasser//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

What principle do you believe in so much that you would risk your life for it?

Is America getting better or are we getting soft?

I grew up in the “assassination generation”, the turbulent 60’s and 70’s, in the midst of riots, demonstrations and wars which made us angry. People, ordinary people, were so angry about social injustices that they would put themselves in grave danger in order to make a point.

There were many, many serious injustices at that time. It didn’t seem as if you were making a choice. It seemed as if there was only one way to go; as if you were wading in water and before you knew it, you were so far out that you were swimming; swimming with the sharks. We followed our ethical DNA. We swam so far out that if you were a student of principles at Kent State University, you could get shot by your own army.

Is there any principle that you hold so dear to your heart that you feel worth dying for?

Is there anything you feel so strongly about that you would risk your life for it?

During slavery, Harriet Tubman risked her life by smuggling slaves from the South.

Northerners risked their lives by hiding them in their homes. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it difficult for both sides. The slaves who were caught were handed down much more cruel sentences than those who hid them; nevertheless, those who hid them were risking their lives.

As you may recall, one of the more distressing scenes from Colson Whitehead’s fictional novel, “The Underground Railroad”, is the one in which the white wife is murdered for housing a runaway slave in her home even though she did not instigate the action.

In 1859, at Harper’s Ferry, John Brown didn’t set out to get himself hung for treason. He simply could no longer take the pacifism of the other abolitionists and set out on an insurrection plan “by any means necessary”, which had a faulty exit plan. He knew the risk, like Malcolm X, he had to take it. True, he had a crazy wild look in his eye that made him look like a madman, but his motives were pure and he had the clarity to know that slavery was abominable and that it was every man’s duty to do something about it. Those are not the thoughts of a crazy man.

Frederick Douglass risked his life almost daily by mouthing off to large groups in public. As a fugitive slave, he was always at risk in the North; which meant that every time he gave a speech, he was putting himself up for arrest, or being returned to the South and possible death.

At that time, people believed in the principle of freedom so much that they made a conscious decision to risk their lives for the freedom of someone else.

Those gentiles in Nazi Germany knew that they were risking their lives when they took in and hid Jewish people. They accepted the consequences because they believed in the principle of liberty so much that they chose it over life.

In the 1930’s, when unions were trying to organize workers, they knew that their lives were at risk.

In the 1950’s, when civil rights activists in the South began organizing for the vote, they knew they were at risk. When Harry T. Moore went to vote in Florida he knew he was putting himself and his family at risk. On Christmas Day, he and his wife were killed when the Ku Klux Klan burned down their house. Was he surprised? Believing in being able to vote was more precious to him than his life.

In 1961, Lumumba was assassinated, he knew the moment he was elected that the end was near.

In 1965, we had the Watts riots in California. 34 people died and we don’t even know their names. Many of us got better jobs as a result of those riots, and we don’t know who to thank.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew his life was at risk at all times. He knew he had a family which he loved dearly, yet it was worth it to him to continue the struggle which would cost him his life. We are reaping those benefits today. Would you do the same?

The last few decades have shown us a period of peaceful demonstrations against political parties, against disenfranchisement and even animal rights. Many of us grumbled but as long as we had our plasma televisions, a job with a pension and a car, we were lulled into a sense of thinking that things were getting better.

Was America getting better?

Were our causes dwindling?

Once Obama was elected and the Williams sisters won every title there was, we had a poignant sense of hope.

And we were proud of ourselves. “Let the young folks take over, we did our part in the 60s and 70s. No more draft, no more bras and no more legal segregation. We were young and reckless. We had no regrets.”

Wal-Mart gave us a sense of complacency, they offered us dreams we could afford.

And then came Black Lives Matter.

They organized and demonstrated over atrocities which we old fogies barely noticed.

All of us, of a certain age, participated in the Civil Rights Movement one way or another. The list of those who risked their lives is far too long to go into. Then we sat down and took a nap. Did we really think the dot-com people were going to take up the torch?

While we were napping, the alt-right was doing the demonstrating, citing diversity as white genocide.

Isis grows in numbers every day, what is it that they find so moving as to risk their lives? America has twice as many white terrorists as Islamic, what do they find so moving as to risk their lives?

They offer secret military training to lonely, maladjusted young men and when finished, get jobs as policemen and state troopers. There is no mystery as to why unarmed, innocent Black men are disproportionately murdered by the police. 74% of extremist-related crimes are carried out by the right wing. They are the corporeal bodies behind that silent majority which seems to be finding its voice–a voice for polarization and blatant racism.

Then came neoliberalism, the “caring capitalists”, if you will. Those who think that money can solve all problems and that profit is next to divine. The “bottom line” is pretty much equal to God.

“We would like to stop putting Coca-Cola in the grammar school machines, but Coke pays us and we must look out for the bottom line.” The Dow Jones is their spiritual leader and they obey it. The neoliberal seems as if he is every color, but really he is only one color – Green. “Let’s privatize the prisons. We can send the inmates out to fight forest fires at less than $1 an hour. They won’t mind. They will welcome the exercise, no need to give them any choice.” “If we privatize all of the schools, we can deunionize them, overcharge them for everything and make sure we have a body of undereducated people to do our dirty work for us.”

This New World Order can figure out stuff for us even if they have never walked a step in your shoes.

One thing is for sure, you’re not going to see an Ivy League, neoliberal on the front lines of the battlefield.

And then came Charlottesville.

Charlottesville woke us up. It shook the complacency off of us and made us realize that the struggle was far from over. We still have something to believe in.

So, ask yourself, sitting there in your Lazy Boy seat watching the new revolution on TV as you eat your gluten-free cookies: What principles do you believe in so much that you are willing to risk your life for them?

When Heather Hyer went to Charlottesville to demonstrate for a cause she strongly believed in, did she know that she was risking her life? Does it matter? She put up her body when other people just mouthed off. Old-time activism was in play; not just signing a petition on the Internet. She showed up. And because she showed up, her life was taken away from her in a most outrageous manner. Each person at that demonstration put themselves in harm’s way. Each person who put their body into action could have had their life taken away for “the cause”.

How splendid to see young people of every color (except Green) and every background come together and act as one, to protest as one, and sadly, to mourn as one.

I don’t want to hear another word about young people frittering away their lives on dope, rap music and cussin’. We, grandpas and grandmas, can no longer sit in front of the television and watch “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune”. We must participate. America may be getting better, but we still have a long way to go. We can’t afford to get soft.

So, stop your grumbling, you can put flowers on your canes or turn them into nightsticks. You can hang incense from your walkers or turn them into AK-47s. You can do anything you want, but do something, what you do is up to you. Get out there with the dope-smoking youngsters and unite in making this a greater and better America. We are all going to die anyway, we may as well make our lives worth something. If we risk death for our beliefs, how wonderful that we had beliefs. MLK, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Medgar Evers, Heather Hyer; they will be watching us, make them proud.