Editorial: Continuing MLK Jr.’s legacy

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. Staff Illustration/Andy Castillo

Published: 1/20/2020 9:07:42 AM

In 1963, Birmingham, Ala. was a hard city for people of color to live in. From places of business to transportation to churches to libraries, everything was segregated. As a hotbed for Civil Rights activism, an area court ordered that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by then a household name, could not hold protests inside the city’s limits.

King, at 34 years old, defied the judgment and was thrown into prison.

It was there, behind bars, that King responded to eight white clergymen who had previously criticized him out of concern that the movement would incite violence. His response was published later as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

It was a type of manifesto against racial injustice (and injustice of all kinds), which still resonates today.

He was in Birmingham, King wrote, “Because injustice is here” and “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Today, our cities and towns don’t flaunt the blatantly discriminatory practices as did Birmingham in the 1960s; businesses aren’t segregated; libraries are open to all. But there is, still, hidden from sight, the seeds of injustice — like a root that will not die. Occasionally, this simmering boil sprouts into the light. Symbols of hate are inscribed in public places; minorities are treated unfairly; complacency rules.

Last year, for example, five swastikas were inscribed in chalk on the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Fine Arts Center. In the summer, two portraits of Joe Dulude II of Greenfield, wearing makeup, a curly blue wig and brightly colored shirts, were torn from the First National Bank on Bank Row. The images, created by Dulude in collaboration with Wheaton Mahoney Photography, were striking.

It’s not often portraits of someone in drag are displayed so publicly.

But someone smashed the Plexiglass and shredded the art pieces about a month after they were installed.

Yes, these instances are isolated. But they serve as a reminder that King’s work is not done.

Five years after penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (and 51 years ago this April), King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. He was only 39 years old and didn’t get to see the full impact of his work — indeed, it lives on today, even in his death, even here in Franklin County.

While he was alive, King was not the popular and acclaimed social activist he is hailed as today. Instead, he fought an uphill and unpopular battle against institutionalized and blatant racism that still exists in modern times.

Today, as we remember King’s legacy, it’s important to remember that small acts of courage in the face of injustice can add up to a more equitable future for all (as exemplified by another great Civil Rights leader, Rosa Parks).

Without King to lead the charge toward racial equality and social parity for every person, it’s up to the rest of us to call out injustice when we see it — no matter how benign it might seem. Because, as King understood, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

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