I remember when the holiday commemorating the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was created in the 1980’s and I will tell you right here and now, there was considerable opposition to it. The state of Arizona was the last holdout on the holiday and there were boycotts by artists and protests. Why? Because Dr. King was not popular in his lifetime. And not so much because of his advocacy for civil rights and fighting racism, but because he wouldn’t back down.
In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote of being told to wait for the right time and Dr. King said, in essence, the time is now. Anyone who says to wait when there is a need for change needs to ask themselves why. And to anyone who says that to me directly I will ask: when will the time be right?
There is no ‘right’ time, or ‘perfect’ time for change. If things were right and just, then there wouldn’t be a need for change. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was born from decades of segregation, and of pain and blood. It was born from a people denied their basic fundamental human rights and Dr. King led a movement based on non-violent resistance as advocated by Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi, and many others. And despite what watered-down textbooks and other sources will say, it was not a popular movement. People were beaten and murdered, including women and children.
In this year of our Lord 2023, there is a movement by right-wing Republicans to bury this history and not teach simply because they say it will make white people uncomfortable.
To that I will say: your discomfort in response to pain and oppression means NOTHING.
No one is blaming white people, or individuals for past hatred and oppression. But each and every person in this country has been exposed to and taught attitudes of hatred and racism. In the last few years, I’ve begun to examine what I was taught and exposed to and yes, it’s painful as hell to know I was silent in the face of most of that. But I’m breaking my silence over that like so many others are now and like Dr. King and all the other Civil Rights activists did back in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Another reason Dr. King was not popular in his lifetime was his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1964, Dr. King began a friendship with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn. Thich Nhat Hahn had been exiled from his home country of Vietnam for speaking out and advocating non-violent resistance against the South Vietnamese government’s brutal oppression and violence. I believe this friendship showed the world that the cause of non-violence isn’t limited to just your home country. That if we are to truly live in peace and harmony with each other we must speak out whenever we can. Thich Nhan Hahn told Dr. King Buddhists considered him a ‘bodhisattva’, an enlightened one. To be enlightened means you see how everything is connected and you nurture those connections in peace and love.
In recent years, I’ve learned a lot about Dr. King’s teachings and advocacy not just for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War, but also his advocacy against poverty and economic injustice. He talked about creating the ‘Beloved Community’, a community in which all people were welcomed to the same table with the same opportunities given to others already at the table while being accepted as they were. But this is not a popular idea even today and why is that?
Because like in the past, there are people who are opposed to this who say that by welcoming all to the table that those people will take from those already seated. That’s not true in any way, shape, or form. There is no need to take more than you need or to take from someone simply because they are not like you. Suffering is NOT noble or right in any way, shape, or form. Suffering does not build character or resiliency. Instead, it creates trauma that echoes through the generations and takes time to heal. And that trauma can’t be healed if a person is suffering from oppression, poverty, or violence.
Non-violent resistance means you will not take up arms against your oppressors, but you will not remain silent in the face of that oppression either. This is why I say to those who push back in fear or ignorance against change for the better: ask yourself why you think and feel the way you do and keep asking until you find all the answers you can, though I will give warning that you might not like the answers you find, and sooner or later you will have to deal with them. No one can change another person, or as I like to say, no one can pull someone’s head out of their ass for them. I do believe people can change for the better and I will welcome those who do sincerely change and accept responsibility for their words and actions in the past.
The time for change is always now, and forever.
For more on the friendship between Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hahn, you can read this wonderful and moving piece by Jay Kuo HERE