What a year it’s been since our last MLK, Jr. Day. At the very least, we’ve all been handed many opportunities this past year to reevaluate where we stand and to think hard about the true meaning of equality and justice and respect, and the privileges we have, or lack, based solely on the color of our skin (and the injustice of that). And to think about our own prejudices, and our actions. This, in a country where vast portions were built on generations of slave labor, an institution that, in the grand scheme of things, ended not that long ago. The town I live in was settled, in the 1880s, by two freed slaves: Samuel and Fannie James. I know people whose grandparents knew them. My grandparents, who all came to this country in the early 1900s, certainly met and knew people who were freed slaves. Such a long history of oppression and such an immense weight to overcome, for a people, and for a nation.
I don’t discuss politics much on the blog; I like to think it’s obvious where I stand without me having to state it. But today, since I’ve titled this chapter Respect, I will say it: What a miserable man we’ve had to endure these four years, and what a miserable time he has dragged us through. Pettiness, discord, and disrespect have reigned, and we knew it would, from the time he mocked a disabled journalist at a campaign rally. It is we, as a nation, who have sown the seeds of this discord and watched it grow. And now, today and this week, we stand at a crossroads.
Far from perfect at this, I do my best to stand with kindness and inclusiveness and respect to people of all cultures and beliefs––which is the principle that makes me excited to write this blog in the first place. I like our differences, and I want to celebrate them in a way that brings people together through tradition. And while there are the broader, abstract ideals that would have us treat others with respect and kindness, do we do this at the most local level? Do we treat the ones we love with respect and kindness? Are we patient with our family in our requests and in our answers to simple questions? Are we helpful, doing things for them without being asked? Do we speak to our family as nicely as we speak to strangers? Do we respect the life decisions other family members make? And do we take that respect out to our community, too? Do we champion those who need a boost, or whose voices need to be heard? So many tough questions as we examine our own actions in regard to respect. When I ask myself these questions, I know I’ve got work to do. You may have some work to do, too. And that’s ok; that’s what a holiday like Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is all about: to remind us of how far we’ve come to get here, and how far we have to go to get farther along.
I’ve mentioned this before, but years ago I’d send occasional contributions to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. They, in turn, would send me return address labels imprinted with my name and address and a message: Teach Tolerance. I rarely used the labels, because the message kind of irked me. If I did use them, I would cross out the word Tolerance and write in the word Respect. Tolerance, it seems to me, falls short in the goal of accepting others; Respect feels more like we’re actually making progress in understanding each other.
Anyway, today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2021 in the United States of America, these are the things first and foremost on my mind, as I strive to be the best version of myself that I can. If I am open and treat others as I hope they would treat me, I think that’s a good foundation.
Image: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, DC, on August 28, 1963. Photograph by Ronald Scherman [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.