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.
January 11th was Human Trafficking Day, a date and topic that hits close to home for us here at 50 Cents. Period. as we continue to fight against cultural stigmas and to educate young girls worldwide. Human trafficking is an obvious blockade to education. Adolescent girls are the main prey for the slavers, who often hunt in areas where there is a strong cultural stigma surrounding the topics of reproductive health and menstrual cycles. These young girls have had little to no education on women’s health, and the confines of the slave trade industry offer no opportunities to remedy that situation.
But the impact of the human slave trade penetrates much deeper into a community than just limited a woman’s knowledge and control of her reproductive and health choices. Human trafficking has recently received a lot of attention from the international press, but for 50.Cents. Period, the problem hits close to home for another reason. It might surprise many that Atlanta (where 50 Cents. Period. is headquartered) is considered the sexual exploitation hub of the United States. Atlanta CBS affiliate WGCL reported last week that approximately 200-300 girls are sexually exploited in Georgia each month, with up to half of those occurrences in Atlanta. Some are runaways, who may be trying to escape physical abuse at home. Typically, these girls are lured into the sex trade around the age of 12. Some are young girls who have been trafficked into the United States from all regions of the world and represent a variety of different races, ethnic groups and religions. Some may be brought to the U.S. legally, but most of them are smuggled in specifically for the sex trade. The rapid increase of this crime is alarming; the United States Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has stated that human trafficking has surpassed the sale of illegal arms, and estimates that within a few years, it will also surpass the drug trade. In the U.S. the human trafficking trade has seen significant increases over the past two years, and is now present (and growing) in all fifty states.
What is 50 Cents. Period. doing about human trafficking? First and most importantly, we are spreading the word. Educating the public about the problem is the first step in solving the problem. In Atlanta, we work with refugee communities to make sure girls and women are aware of the exploitation in the community, and provide educational programs to empower them against those who would seek to victimize them. We provide a safe place for them to go if they need to report cases of exploitation, or to escape from possible dangers themselves.
50 Cents. Period.’s stated mission is to “empower women and girls to stay fully engaged in their communities and education.” While the focus of the organization’s efforts have been around removing the stigma and barriers surrounding period, gender and reproductive choices, it is becoming increasingly vital that women and girls be given the tools and the self-confidence to avoid the trap of exploitation. With the appropriate publicity and resources to continue raising awareness, we can continue to enable women of all ages to address a situation that is detrimental to them and their community.