Ernest Hooper: MLK holiday is a reminder that action, not just words, is required

Published January 15 2018
Updated January 15 2018

Minutes before the Rev. Janae Pitts-Murdock delivered her moving keynote speech at the Tampa Organization of Black Affairsí annual Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast, I checked my emails.

Mistake.

Even in the 7 a.m. hour, anger emerging from my recent column ó a criticism of President Donald Trumpís recent comments ó started filling the inbox.

Itís a familiar anger, emanating from both those who regularly email and those reaching out for the first time.

Itís an anger rooted in a supposed self-preservation. Itís an anger cloaked in the victimization they supposedly disdain.

Itís an anger that came to a boil during the tenure of President Barack Obama, but existed long before Obama or maybe even before Bill Clinton sat in the White House.

Itís an anger that continues to simmer, rising whenever President Trump draws criticism. Itís an anger not easily diffused.

Itís an anger I try to challenge with thoughtful responses. Respectful disagreements deserve respectful replies.

But more and more, Iím coming to realize my energies are wasted on such discussions. Even the most civil discourse ends up wrapped in whataboutism, historical laments and an insistence Obama was bad and Hillary would have been worse.

None of it moves us toward a more united front. At best, we agree to disagree, and Iím left to wonder if Iím better served making appeals to those with a greater appreciation for all men, and a deeper respect for every citizen ó people who realize empathy isnít spelled with an "I." Acknowledging their spirit and encouraging them to act should be the goal.

Itís a sentiment King embraced and a perspective echoed by Pitts-Murdock, a minister from Fayetteville, Ark. She spoke of the challenges facing a nation, sounding an alarm and lamenting that itís not heard by everyone.

"There are people sleeping comfortable in their affluence and their apathy," Pitts-Murdock said. "They are unaware at best, unmoved at worst."

Pitts-Murdock detailed the challenges and categorized them as discouraging, but she also noted that as a community, weíre strengthened by those who see beyond themselves.

"It is invigorating that the cause of equality and justice is not borne only by people of color," she said. "There are conscientious and courageous persons who have never felt the pains of racial prejudice or economic alienation, yet you choose to use your privilege and your influence for the betterment of humankind.

"Many of you in this room have sacrificed social advancement, economic advancement, political advancement, because you deeply believe Dr. Kingís words from his Letter From a Birmingham Jail: ĎInjustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.í?"

That 1963 letter wasnít the last time King spoke of our societyís need for a universal awareness. Months later in his famed "I Have a Dream" speech, he implored people to recognize the contributions people outside the black community had made to the civil rights movement.

"Many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny," King said that day. "They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

"We cannot walk alone. And as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back."

When we fail to denounce divisive comments or hateful actions, we risk turning our nation back to that more divided time, to that period where rights were trampled and women couldnít find peace in the workplace. Prejudice cannot be empowered. The flames of fear cannot be stoked.

But progress must be measured by more than politically correct Facebook posts and memes with Kingís best quotes. As Pitts-Murdock noted, "Neither nostalgia about the great successes of the civil rights movement nor sentimental ruminating of the eloquence and vigilance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are solutions to injustice, and neither are they substitutes for action."

We must direct our energies toward strategic solutions ó whether itís on education, economic development or entrepreneurial expansion ó and partner with those who donít see compromise as capitulation. The question shouldnít be is this a Republican idea or a Democratic idea, but is it an idea that can work? Is it an idea designed to bolster all, or an idea that promotes one group over another?

It can be done, but it starts with coalitions built on mutual respect and empathy. The arc of the universe will bend toward justice, if right-minded people team to bend it.

Thatís all Iím saying.

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