Monday, the nation again pauses to celebrate the legacy of a man who dedicated his life’s work toward uniting a divided nation into something whole through shared values of faith, tolerance and compassion.
Four days later, the U.S. will inaugurate its 45th president, whose campaign and election victory has exposed a country less united than at any time since the Civil War.
It is a stark contrast, but from it, lessons can be learned that may bring us closer to the ideals Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. laid out for us.
Today’s gulf still is often based on race, as it was in King’s day. Despite important steps toward equality, including the two-time election of a black president, there still is a lack of trust at many levels based on skin color and ethnicity. Civil rights remain a work in progress despite those gains.
“I have a dream that one day little black boys and girls will be holding hands with little white boys and girls.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Were he around today, King likely would recognize that intolerance also cuts in other ways, not just by skin color but by religion, culture, age, gender and sexual identity. And, perhaps most pointedly these days, by economics. A nation of haves and have-nots will struggle to bridge its other gaps. Those of all backgrounds have been left out of the nation’s perceived prosperity, and abandoned by leaders who cater to others purely for political gain. This more, than anything, could explain why Donald Trump will be sworn in as president Friday.
It’s easy for expert pundits who occupy the comfortable environs of the bicoastal political and media centers to write off Trump’s victory as “white anger” by a majority race over gains by minorities. It’s likely many did vote for that reason.
But a more widespread cause for Trump’s ascent was a belief the professional governing class no longer works for folks in rural and smalltown America who rotate our tires, build our furniture and pave our streets with an honest day’s labor, often without college degrees on their resumes. Working class people of all races feel left behind, an issue King understood well. Remember, his visit to Memphis in 1968 when he was assassinated was over a garbage workers’ strike.
“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” — King
Thus, it’s fitting many of the King Week events in Gainesville focused on efforts to bring economic equality, education and power to the underserved minority community. We’ll never be one people while some live in crackerbox apartments and can’t find work. And the inability to get children into good schools, on to college and to better jobs keeps that cycle intact.
There are no easy answers today any more than there were five decades ago. But any solution begins with coming off our high horses and working to listen to and understand each other better.
“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” — King
Such snobbery was evident last week when Hollywood actress Meryl Streep addressed fears Trump has stirred among many, but in doing so revealed her attitude on those who backed him when she said: “Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick ’em all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”
It so happens a lot of decent, hardworking folks prefer football and MMA to Streep’s movies. While she sought to make a different point, her elitism showed through. Attacking Trump is one thing; politicians and presidents are fair game. But she stepped over a line by showing disdain for the 63 million of her countrymen who voted for him.
When someone sees half of their fellow Americans as undesirable — one might say “deplorable” — based on cultural or political views, we have a much bigger problem than one candidate or campaign. It echoes the distant past when so many were shunned for how they looked, lived or believed.
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” — King
Trump is a symptom of a divided country, his candidacy shining a light on how disunited we are. It’s less about him than it is about people who have forgotten their common bonds, at times leaving it hard to imagine we live under the same flag (one many now refuse to salute).
We can survive four years of anyone as president. What we can’t endure is the belief any of us are lesser than others for any reason, be it racial background, the church we attend, the accent we speak with or a preference for guns, pickup trucks and Baptist potlucks. No one should be labeled as “others.” We must dig past surface differences to find what King called “the content of our character.”
This begins with each person. If you want to be respected, you must give respect. We will not advance as a society if we merely shift intolerance from one group to another. King wanted a world where all people are valued, and we are failing him, spectacularly.
We suspect Dr. King would not approve of Trump on many levels, but that he also would be disturbed to see hatred and derision aimed at those who support him. Two wrongs, we have long been told, don’t make a right. A country that can’t see that will remain stuck on the wrong path, leaving King’s dream as just that, and no more.
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” — King
Will this boat sink or float? It’s up to us — not politicians, not celebrities, not media talking heads, but every American — to determine if we can inhabit the same vessel peacefully and pull our oars together. If we can’t treat each other in a civil fashion, we’re doomed to become a balkanized hulk of a country that learned nothing from King’s sacrifice and the struggles so many endured on his behalf.
Share your thoughts on this or any other topic in a a letter to the editor; you can use this form or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Times editorial board includes General Manager Norman Baggs, Editor Keith Albertson and Managing Editor Shannon Casas, plus community members Susan DeCrescenzo, Cathy Drerup and Brent Hoffman.