On January 15, 2016, Martin Luther King, Jr., would have celebrated 87 years of life. He continues to be an icon with hundreds of streets, schools, parks, and churches named in his honor. Amid our celebrations of Dr. King’s monumental contributions to this country, can we as a nation and communities of color find answers to our most persistent issues in his writings, and words of wisdom? This piece attempts to look back at his life and glean his thoughts about current issues that continue to plague African American communities today.
LAS: In the state of California, 20.3% of African Americans fail to complete high school. In Los Angeles County alone, 19.3% of African Americans drop out of high school. Research has shown that high drop out rates among young people have a direct correlation to life-long employment struggles, high poverty rates, poor physical and mental health, guaranteed high rates of criminal activity and violence. In a report from the California Attorney General’s Office, it was estimated that a 10% increase in graduation rates would result in a 20% reduction in murder and assault rates. What would Dr. King say?
KING: “It seems to me that education has a two-fold function to perform in the life of a man and in society,” King said. “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and critically. But education, which stops with efficiency, may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reasons, but with no morals. Intelligence plus character is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only the power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.
LAS: It is estimated that African Americans make up 9% of the population in Los Angeles County but account for 50% of the homeless population.
The numbers are disproportionately high compared to the percentage of African Americans in the county and the national rates for African Americans are similar. What would Dr. King say?
KING: America is the richest nation in the world and there is nothing wrong with that. The question is whether America will help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will. Ultimately a great nation is a compassionate nation. America has not met its obligations and its responsibilities to the poor. One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done. Yes – we can say we built bridges that span the seas, buildings that kiss the skies, submarines to penetrate oceanic depths and we brought into being many other things with our scientific and technological power. But I can hear the God of history saying, that was not enough. But I was hungry, and you fed me not. I was naked, and you clothed me not. I was devoid of decent sanitary housing to live in and you provided no shelter for me. And therefore you cannot enter the kingdom of greatness. If you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me. That’s the question facing America today.
LAS: African Americans are more likely to experience factors that increase the risk for developing a mental health condition. For example, exposure to urban violence, homelessness, and lack of access to quality care. What would Dr. King say?
KING: Most people do not realize that when I was 12 years of age, I tried to commit suicide by jumping from the second story window of my home. My dear grandmother had died and I had watched a parade against her wishes so I thought my disobedience had a role in her death because the two events happened so close together. I was cared for but what of those who cannot receive the care that they so desperately need? The care for the least of these is our responsibility and the treatment of those who suffer is the measure of our salvation or damnation as persons and as a nation. We must move from being a thing-oriented, to a person-oriented society. Of al the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and the most inhuman because it often results in physical death. I see no alternative to direct action and creative nonviolence to raise the conscience of the nation.
LAS: It seems that it’s so easy for us to hate those who are different from us. We have less tolerance for those who don’t look like us or speak like us. Fear has driven a wedge between the citizens of this country and the divide seems deep and at times insurmountable. What would Dr. King Say?
KING: Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those we call enemy. For no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers. In God’s magnanimous love, He freely offers to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Man filled with God and God operating through man brings unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives.
SENSELESS ACTS OF VIOLENCE IN AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITIES
LAS: African Americans are dying from senseless acts of violence across the nation. Those sworn to protect and serve us perpetrated some of those acts. While most citizens of color participated in non-violent protest, some reacted in rage and violence at times. The violent response surprised many across the nation and left us wondering words or blows…do Black lives really matter to this nation? What would Dr. King say?
KING: Victor Hugo said long ago “If a soul is left in darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness. I will always say that riots are socially destructive and self-defeating.
I‘m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice. At the same time, it is as necessary for me to be as vigorous in condemning the conditions which cause persons to feel that they must engage in riotous activities as it is for me to condemn riots. I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? Man must evolve for all human conflict a method, which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation for such method is love.