The dream and the reality
I just got back from the Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in Graham Chapel and was deeply moved by professor Bob Hansman’s remarks about the true meaning of King’s life. For those who missed it, Professor Hansman reminded us that King was not a mere dreamer and proponent of conciliation, but a fierce and often critical advocate of true justice.
We have come a long way since King’s assassination in 1968. We enacted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. We integrated our schools. We elected a black president.
Yet self-congratulatory platitudes about how far we have come strike me as profoundly out of touch. As much as our world has changed and improved since 1968, there is still far too much inequality and injustice in our world to justify a collective pat on the back.
Wash. U. students witnessed a taste of this injustice this fall when students were denied access to Mothers Bar and responded admirably, yet the truth is that such discrimination is fairly trivial when compared to the larger gap between Wash. U. students and the broader world.
This week a federal court in California has begun hearing a challenge to Prop 8, the state referendum that stripped same-sex couples of the right to marry. The case is an important reminder that we still have forms of legal second-class citizenship in our country.
This week’s news has also brought reminders of political injustice abroad, in the form of Google’s decision to stop censoring its Chinese site. We may have won the fight for African-American voting rights in the U.S., but in China and elsewhere, political freedoms are still severely curtailed.
Perhaps most tragic are the recent events in Haiti, where even before the earthquake many were living in desperate poverty. As long as 1 percent of the world’s population holds 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and more than a billion people live on less than $1 a day, we cannot claim that the fight for equality is anywhere near complete.
Finally, inequality is also right here in our own backyard. It is present in the difference between the manicured lawns of the Wash. U. bubble and the streets that are mere blocks away. It is felt in the difference between those attending an elite university and those who will never graduate from high school.
The history of the civil rights movement is full of stories of heroism and tragedy, but the one I have always found most compelling is that of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three young civil rights activists who were murdered in 1964 for their efforts to register black voters in Mississippi. Most striking, Goodman and Schwerner were white, Northern college students with no personal connection to the civil rights movement who still cared enough to die for what they felt was right. Our collective efforts to improve the world from within the Wash. U. bubble seem pretty meager by comparison.
Of all King’s many wise words, my favorite is the following quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I believe that wholeheartedly, but I also know this—it will not bend itself. If we truly want to honor King’s legacy, then we still have a lot of work to do.