Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, so we’re not in school. I find this a bit ironic; I would suspect that Dr. King himself would advocate to have such a day dedicated towards learning in the classroom – a day set aside for serious discussion about pressing problems in contemporary society. When I attended Lindenwood University–the school that never took a holiday–we went to school on MLK day, but that changed a few years ago after many, many vocal protests from the student body. Many schools, including IUPUI, have taken this day as an opportunity for service projects that help the campus and the larger community. I’m all for that and I’d be there helping if I could, but when I tried to sign up for a spot, all reservations were filled. That’s a good thing.
I did a little research on Dr. King’s speeches and found this presentation from April 10, 1957. That day, Dr. King came to St. Louis and spoke to 8,000 people at the Kiel Auditorium. His message was simple: We’ve made a lot of progress, but we’ve got a long way to go towards racial equality in the United States.
Prior to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, Missouri embraced segregationist policies similar to those of other states in South; “separate but equal” schools, restaurants, transportation, etc. Yet the state, or at least the city of St. Louis, accepted Brown and enforced integration of all facilities. Dr. King appluaded the city for its actions:
It’s good to be in St. Louis, for I’m happy to see the progress that has been made and that is being made in the area of human relations. In a quiet and dignified manner, integration has moved on amazingly well and this city is to be commended. Certainly the Deep, the cities in the Deep South have a great deal to learn from a city like St. Louis. It proves that integration can be brought into being without a lot of trouble, that it can be done smoothly and peacefully. This city is to be commended for that.
However, he reminded the crowd of the troubling legacy of slavery by invoking the court decision 100 years earlier in the Dred Scott Case, which had its roots in a St. Louis Courthouse just a few miles away from the Kiel:
Throughout slavery the Negro was treated in a very inhuman fashion. He was a thing to be used, not a person to be respected. (Yeah, That’s right) He was merely [applause], he was merely a depersonalized cog in a vast plantation machine. (Yeah) The famous Dred Scott decision of 1857 well illustrates the status of the Negro during slavery. For it was in this decision that the Supreme Court of the nation said, in substance, that the Negro is not a citizen of this nation. He is merely property subject to the dictates of his owner. Living under these conditions many Negroes lost faith in themselves. Many came to feel that perhaps they were less than human. So long as the Negro accepted this place assigned to him, so long as the Negro patiently accepted injustice and exploitation, a sort of racial peace was maintained.
Dr. King called for further discussion and action to solve nation’s racial troubles. Most importantly, he told the crowd to avoid thinking that the situation was resolved, whether for good or for bad. Notice how Dr. King invoked the legacy of the past in the last block quote to strengthen his argument about a contemporary problem:
Now you will notice that the extreme optimist and the extreme pessimist have at least one thing in common: they both agree that we must sit down and do nothing in the area of race relations. (Yes) The extreme optimist says do nothing because integration is inevitable. The extreme pessimist says do nothing because integration is impossible. But there is a third position, there is another attitude that can be taken, and it is what I would like to call the realistic position. The realist in the area of race relations seeks to reconcile the truths of two opposites while avoiding the extremes of both. (Yeah) So the realist would agree with the optimist that we have come a long, long way. But, he would go on to balance that by agreeing with the pessimist that we have a long, long way to go. (Amen) [applause] And it is this basic theme that I would like to set forth this evening. We have come a long, long way but we have a long, long way to go. (Amen) [applause].
These are good words, words we should heed today. Apathy is the antithesis of action. Indifference towards the problems of society just means that you’re allowing someone else to make a decision for you, to take an action that might have far-reaching consequences for yourself in the future. Whether you’re concerned about the looming debt crisis, the legal status of gay marriage, race relations, our endless wars in the Middle East and the horrific nature of our drone strikes, or any other issue, you should remember that there’s room for more voices in the discussion. A “do nothing” attitude is just that: nothing.
We’ve still got a long way to go.