The other day, a friend posted a quote on Facebook attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It went something like this, “Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”
The sentiment resonated with me, so I went digging for the exact citation. After an hour, I couldn’t find it, in spite of combing through the on-line King archives, my own reference library of civil rights texts, and of course, the ubiquitous Google search, tried seven different ways. It did, however, appear on several animal welfare/vegan websites. While it sounds like something Dr. King would say, the platitude cannot be credited to him with certitude.
In the world of advocacy, the practice of validating one’s own platform or ideals by using the voice of another has become all too common. If you require proof, look no further than the hashtags of Facebook and Twitter citing #Mandela, #MLK, #Gandhi, #Buddha, #Jesus, etc. During a civil rights event, I once heard Dr. King’s daughter state, “Look, my dad didn’t take a bullet so gay people could get married.” I understand her dedication to her father’s civil rights legacy—especially here in the South; but the truth remains, we have no idea for which present-day issues Dr. King would advocate for or against, sadly because he isn’t here. All we have is retrospect and conjecture.
However, I believe the veracity of his 49 year-old sermon in Selma, Alabama remains, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” (8 March, 1965)
The philosopher in me would like to spend all day hashing out the Kantian and Aristotelian virtues of what is true, what is just, and what is right. Is it subjective? Is it linked to a larger social consciousness or moral contract? And, in terms of a call to action in 2014, what does it mean for those still fighting for civil and human rights?
I like Eve Ensler’s definition in the Forward to My Name is Jody Williams: “An activist is someone who cannot help but fight for something. That person is not usually motivated by a need for power or money or fame, but in fact is driven slightly mad by some injustice, some cruelty, some unfairness, so much so that he or she is compelled by some internal moral engine to act to make it better.” Sounds like the way Dr. King lived his life. He LIVED his ethos. He used his voice on behalf of those who had none.
Last week, a friend and I were chatting about all the facets and subtleties encompassed in 50 Cents. Period.’s programs: reproductive health, refugee women’s health, rape warfare survivorship,rural women’s health, HIV, sex education, menstruation, domestic violence, access to family planning, sanitation, mental health—all wrapped within the layers of culture and context, navigated through multiple languages. She asked, “How do you not get overwhelmed?”
The truth is I do. Every day. But here’s the rub: This is my fight. It is the one that makes me burn with fervor against injustice and inequality. I can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a “calling”, if you will, just as fighting for the dream of “sitting at the table of brotherhood” was Dr. King’s.
I don’t think it’s productive to spend time surmising what Dr. King would do or say, were he alive today. Instead, I believe what’s inherent in his legacy is a call to PERSONAL action, recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of each soul. He died before his dream was realized, but he’d already “…been to the mountaintop.” He lived his calling. He lived it OUTLOUD.
As we honor his memory and celebrate his legacy, there is still much work done. In the United States, women of African, Latin, and Native descent continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty, domestic violence, HIV, and the lack of access to basic health services.
What would Martin do? I have no idea, but I’m going to continue fighting for my sisters.
Find your fight. Fight it. Be fierce. Use your voice. Be loud. That is legacy.
What would you do?
Carson, K. & Shepard, C., (eds) (2001) A call to conscience: the Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: Warner Books.
Office of Minority Health, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (n.d.) Available from: http://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/populations/remp.html (Accessed 19 January 2014).
Williams, J. (2013) My name is Jody Williams: a Vermont girl’s winding path to the Nobel Peace Prize. Berkeley: University of California Press.