The third Monday of every January is observed as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to celebrate and honor the life and legacy of the venerated civil rights leader. Assassinated at the age of 39 in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. permanently transformed the United States of America, leaving it a more just and democratic nation.
With his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr. stands out for his unwavering commitment to non-violence and justice. His charisma and oratory are without parallel. While most people are familiar with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a closer look at his writing and speeches reveal a fierce commitment to the need for society to be organized around the principles of justice in all dimensions of life – racial, economic and otherwise – through the force of committed activism and political engagement.
Given the depths of King’s commitment to justice, there are a number of lessons that Pakistanis can draw from King’s life and legacy.
A society built and sustained by bigotry will be violent and unjust.
All manner of social ills will metastasize if bigotry is not rooted out at its origins.
“There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft mindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce soft minded men purchases its own spiritual death on an installment plan.”
From rampant sectarianism to fractious ethnic divides, Pakistan is no stranger to bigotry and systematic discrimination. For the country to be set on a more prosperous path, the elimination of bigotry is a fundamental prerequisite. This cannot be a top-down state project either; civil society and ordinary citizens must join hands to fight this battle in the trenches and do the hard work of eliminating prejudice and intolerance from our society. This will likely involve making the requisite policy changes in our education system, and investing in a broad based revolution of our popular culture.
War and organized violence in all of its forms is an enemy of the poor.
War tends to “draw men, skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube.” Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War was shaped by America’s unwillingness to spend resources on eliminating poverty and the accompanying obsession with defeating Communism on foreign land. He referred to the war as “madness.”
“A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
As militancy is again on the rise, our policymakers and politicians ought to recognize that sowing the seeds of conflict will perpetuate conflict even further. Dr. King believed that war had an uncanny ability to exacerbate all forms of injustice: conflict promises easy solutions by committing to violence. The tougher path to take is to commit to building a society where disagreement is ironed out through dialog, where respect and tolerance are the most important values.
We must never lose hope in the desire to build a better world that is more just and fair.
Even when faced with defeat, we must remember that the “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While Dr. King didn’t necessarily embrace some deterministic ideal about good always winning over evil, he believed that change was possible through committed activism. This fundamental belief shaped his reactions to the setbacks the Civil Rights Movement faced in the South during the 1960s.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
In a masterclass of political activism, Dr. King wrote an open letter called the Letter from Birmingham Jail when he was imprisoned in 1963. In the letter, Dr. King expresses his disappointment in “the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice… shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Dr. King’s letter emphasizes the need for injustice to be called out, and how the need to maintain things as they are and to avoid conflict are impulses that can often get in the way of the achievement of justice.
Oppressors, MLK said, never willingly gave freedom and rights to the oppressed – they had to be demanded by “extremists for justice.” There can be no “timetable for another man’s freedom.”
We will do well to remember that it is important to pay heed to demands for freedom and justice from all corners of our country. No political leader should get to determine who gets to voice their demands for justice, and when.
Only in the darkness can you see the stars
Even though the Civil Rights Movement under Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership was shaped by a commitment to improving the fortunes of Black people in America, it can serve as a blueprint for social movements of all stripes around the world.
Pakistan faces a confluence of multiple crises in the current moment. Undoubtedly, we must contend with the “fierce urgency of now.” Our country, similar to what Dr. King said about the state of America in the 1960s, “is reaping the harvest of hate and shame planted through generations of educational denial, political disenfranchisement and economic exploitation.”
Pakistanis must realize that only a fierce commitment to justice will set the country on the right course.
“This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”