19 January 2015

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

I share the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.  Among other things, for people to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.  It is an ideal.  Since that dream has still not been achieved more than 50 years after he gave the speech, it's apparently a challenging ideal.  Given events of the last few years, I'm not confident that we're closer to it than we were 20 years ago.  Maybe I was just that naive 20 years ago, maybe I just hear about more than I used to.  And maybe we as a nation have ceased the effort towards that ideal.  In many respects, though, it doesn't matter.  Something is only an ideal if you are approaching it ever more closely through time.  And that's not where we are.  It's only an ideal if, indeed, people actually agree that it is an ideal to strive for.

I also encourage all to read his letter from a Birmingham jail.  Not only is it a fine piece of writing, it mentions many specifics of our (USA) failure to live to our ideals as expressed in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.  The preamble to the constitution reads:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
  It is not justice for the law to be applied differently based on the color of someone's skin, rather than the content of their character.  It does not ensure domestic Tranquility to make police forces comparable to occupying military forces.  Nor can the Blessings of Liberty be secured by treating part of your citizenry like 'other' -- not truly citizens, not really deserving of the Blessings of Liberty, or Justice.

I've seen some bizarre interpretations of the Constitution.  For some, since the constitution was written by slaveowners, slaves and their descendants are not included as part of 'We the People'.  Other absurdities on par with that abound.  But, if one wants to tread that route, be sure that all of your ancestors signed the Declaration.  None of mine did, so I incline to the interpretation that it is a) people and b) of the United States -- all citizens -- who should be (ideals again) included.  Even though for more than four score and seven years we treated part of our population as property.  The step forward in ideals is to include all our people.

About a century before letter from a Birmingham jail was Civil Disobedience, by Henry David Thoreau.  He was in jail, on grounds of his protest of his taxes going to support slavery.  For both men, there was this consistency, often lost by current people: They knew full well that in breaking unjust laws, they would likely go to jail for it.  That is part of engaging in civil disobedience.  When a friend visited Thoreau in jail, the friend asked "How can you be here?" (in jail).  Thoreau answered "How can you not be?"  A couple years ago, I testified in favor of giving civil protections to a class of people who were being discriminated against, not for reasons of their character.  I was astonished by one of the people testifying against the nondiscrimination law.  Not, sadly, because she was opposed, but because of her panic reaction to a later person noting that our names would be recorded and history would judge us.  If you argue that public law should be one way or the other, you should certainly be willing to be known for it!  Not even a threat of jail time.  Ideals mean little if you are not even willing to be known to hold them.

I don't have answers, but this year I'll be doing more towards achieving those, and below, ideals.

A very different source of American (US) ideals is the Statue of Liberty's poem, and the Pledge of Allegiance.  The Pledge closes "... with liberty and justice for all."  A depressingly large fraction of the people who get hot and bothered about a different part of the Pledge totally ignore this part.  For all!  As with We the People, it's inclusive. 

The poem on the Statue of Liberty concludes
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

This was written in 1883.  The last of my family's immigrations was in 1899, when this still held for the USA.  Immigration was a simple matter -- are you carrying contagion, are you planning to overthrow the government, will you work hard to take care of yourself?  Answer no, no, yes, and you were in. 

As time passed, the idea of excluding people by origin gained power.  Such that it became a routine matter to talk about the 'good' people and the 'bad' people.  The 'bad' people didn't understand our ways, were lazy, would be a drain on the public good, and so forth.  But ... both groups were Europeans.  Just some were the 'right' parts of Europe (England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Germany, ...), and some were the 'wrong' parts of Europe (southern and eastern Europe -- Spain, Italy, the Balkans, Poland, Romania, ...).  By some time in the 1920s, my ancestor would not have been allowed to immigrate (Romanian Jew -- wrong religion, wrong part of the world).

Still no answers.  But I'm confident that if we don't establish justice for all, then justice for any of us is threatened.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Thanks for this.