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By: Martin Schoket, English teacher at Chester Lewis
A constant theme throughout social studies curricula is the proud, storied past of American activism in the aims of achieving social and racial justice. The United States of America, in a sense, has been one long, continuous human rights campaign dating back to its conception. At times, the spoils of establishing the historical record went to the victors, like the founders and framers of the US Constitution cementing the American legacy after a bloody war fought for independence from a formidable monarchy with nearly global dominance. At more shameful points along our timeline, however, voices of the unheard felt the imperative impulse in stepping forward, through the dense fog of violent racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia, to speak to injustices incurred on our shared land, by our fellow compatriots.
These voices included the likes of 18th century slave Elizabeth Bett, who sued for her freedom by citing the Massachusetts Constitution that stated all citizens of the state were born free and equal. The voices also included the inimitable tenor of self-taught, former slave Frederick Douglass, who, among a litany of other accomplishments, was the first black person to be allowed into the White House as a guest of the President (one of the many American monuments erected with the blood and sweat of slaves from several oppressed minority groups constituting the land of the free).
No matter which worldview or lens you view our timeline, one powerful voice among the many throughout our history stands out uniquely and squarely as one of the truly uniting sermons of our relatively short lifespan as a nation: the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The spirited reverend and iconic activist became our modern-day American hero with his struggle for justice and dignity through the fight for civil rights. His tenure during the civil rights era seems to have given his legacy the ability to transcend the contentious US political spectrum, where proponents of every creed humble themselves in deferring to the insightful wisdom of the good doctor, whether they represent that wisdom accurately or not. Among the numerous compositions penned by Dr. King, one of the most relevant to the events of our current sociopolitical landscape is a book entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Community or Chaos? This tome was his fourth and final book before his assassination, and he spent a long period composing the pages from isolation, in Jamaica, living with no telephone and little correspondence, even from family. Amid the 223 pages of inspirational words, four sentences, grouped together in one paragraph, stand out where King’s almost prophetic words continue to ring true still today. The quotation begins:
Are we more concerned with the size, power and wealth of our society or with creating a more just society?
To begin, King questions the hegemony of the America machine as it grew to something wholly unrecognizable following the boom in the nation after World War II and the Korean War and leading into the deadly conflict in Vietnam. Racism and the like were already well established, though mostly unspoken, norms of the time, that came more to the forefront during the civil rights era, through the very agitation for a just society spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. This same spirit of questioning and confronting our undelivered promises through the American ideals of liberty and justice for all continues to resist abatement, appeasement, and apathy in lieu of a new American struggle for equity afforded to marginalized voices calling out amid a period of unprecedented inequality.
Are we creating a more just society as corporations continue to achieve record profits during times of hopelessness, social unrest, racial injustice, and economic uncertainty? While 400 million Americans applied for unemployment insurance during a global pandemic, approximately 450 of the wealthiest Americans have amassed almost $600 billion in wealth. Some of these same corporations and CEOs, and even state-owned industries, make these unsustainable gains with the exploitation of cheap labor, like the massive amounts of incarcerated Americans and undocumented immigrants working to survive the penitentiary and/or provide for families. With the highest incarceration rate in the world, where about one out of every 100 people in the US are in a prison or jail, and about 1 in 8 men are former offenders, the US loses between $57 billion and $65 billion a year in lost output, which is a burdened carried by normal, everyday, working class people. And in a country of 47 million immigrants who are often paid substandard wages for manual labor jobs, we find a better educated workforce, greater occupational specialization, and higher overall economic productivity. How can our American legacy of pursuing justice be genuine and authentic in an atmosphere of greed-driven dehumanization?
The failure to pursue justice is not only a moral default.
King posits further a claim not exclusive to our principles as a nation but one enshrined in an innate sense of humanity: the pursuit of justice (or, conversely, a lack thereof as a morally culpable result of apathy and neutrality, or even outright hostility). Cities around the country and world have seen a resurgence in common folk voicing their collective disapproval of the current system in the streets they rightfully own. Direct action, in a search for justice, is a tactic not lost on any side of political ideology but one everybody shares in the belief of being a noble right of We The People, whether we are protesting the individual liberties of commerce and consumption, or the killing of black, indigenous, and people of color with state sanctioned violence. Though many forget it, We The People includes all people, of all stripes and backgrounds, even when the Constitution originally was not written with many of our fellow Americans in mind, so it makes our progressive work moving forward that much more important.
Without it social tensions will grow and the turbulence in the streets will persist despite disapproval or repressive action.
When the magnates of our country convince many of us to believe, ignore, or otherwise not speak up for those most often traumatized by injustice among us, we fall victim to the growing social tensions and turbulence in the streets of which King foretold. From coast to coast, Portland to New York City, groups of likeminded people have sustained over 70 days of protesting in the streets and on smartphones, speaking for the oppressed and brining awareness to issues of racial and social justice. Some of these efforts have affected real change, like the changing of policing policy and accountability of bad state actors, while other efforts have been met with the angry disapproval online and frustrating repressive actions of state-directed forces in the streets. King understood this dynamic so intimately from his own experiences his communication of such realities should now be heard as a clarion call in addressing the demands of justice-focused organizations, such as Black Lives Matter, the Poor People’s Campaign, United We Dream, and the Movement for Black Lives. Should these reasonable pleas for equity, equality, and dignity not be taken seriously with a truly empathetic sense of restoring justice as a way to heal longstanding, generational, sustained pain, everyone, except for those wealthy and powerful enough to keep from drowning, will suffer under the weight of stress from a missed opportunity in living up to the values of the Constitution but also in what we primitively feel it means to be deeply humane.
Even more, a withered sense of justice in an expanding society leads to corruption of the lives of all Americans.
And in King’s final point, we find the unfortunate result of lackluster and nonexistent efforts by the privileged to correct the trajectory of our beloved land: we will all wither in our fundamental human sense of pursuing justice in favor of a corrupted life of watching and allowing injustice to flourish so long as it doesn’t affect us personally. Just as a rising tide raises all ships, it will inevitably sink them all if the storm maintains a chaotic course away from community towards the swells of individualistic despair. King’s searing condemnations, however, are rooted in the same love preached through his Christianity, so it’s within reason to suspect his position of our present reality to be one of optimism in seeing a brighter day for all Americans.
So, in returning to Dr. King’s initial proposition regarding social and racial justice, shall we ask, again: Where Do We Go from Here: Community or Chaos?