Today is a national holiday in the US to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wrote this a few years ago about how he inspired me in the fight to stop child trafficking.
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Five decades ago, my sisters and I set up a little store in the playroom of our house in New York. When we invited our parents to come and shop (i.e. to spend their money), they were aghast to see the sign we had hung in our store:
"We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone."
My parents explained to us the meaning of this sign, which we must have seen in a real store, and why it was wrong--that it was racial discrimination designed to keep out blacks. (As Italian-Americans, my parents had their own encounters with injustice and discrimination, particularly my father.)
I had no clue. I went through the 1950s and, I regret to say, the 60s and still had no clue.
What was happening in the south didn't seem to affect me--Little Rock, Birmingham, Memphis, the March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr. It was all something on the pages of newspapers, but didn't really involve me.
When I was 17, I moved to Washington to attend college during the years when race riots scarred the streets. The events of the day began to get a little closer to home.
A decade later, I moved to Alabama and met people personally affected by injustice. The struggle for justice got closer.
Then I moved to central Florida, where one morning I looked out my window and saw five men cloaked in white sheets protesting outside the Jewish community center across the street, claiming the Holocaust was all a myth. Now the struggle for justice was just outside my front door.
Yet another decade later, I was co-writing a book called The Dream Is Alive about the struggle for racial justice within the Christian church. The title, of course, refers to Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. While researching information for the book, I read his speech on the internet and listened to scratchy on-line recordings of many of his other speeches--and they powerfully impacted me. Now the struggle was right at the tip of my fingers.
Today, five decades after taking down that sign, I think I'm finally getting it. Injustice has many forms and faces, and they're all ugly. In my travels, I've seen the injustice of child trafficking face to face--girls in cages, boys sold on streets, and more. As I took down that sign 50 years ago, now I'm working to take down a different form of injustice through The Born2Fly Project to stop child trafficking.
Dr. King's struggle in the face of overwhelming odds, along with his profound words that documented it, are part of the inspiration that has propelled me.
Here are some of his words from his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail." I hope they inspire you the way they inspire me.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
"Justice too long delayed is justice denied."
"We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed."
"We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right."
"Was not [the biblical prophet] Amos an extremist for justice? 'Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream' [Amos 5:24] . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
--excerpts from "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
To read and hear more:
"Letter From a Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963 (dramatized video and audio)
"I Have a Dream" speech, August 28, 1963
"I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech, April 3, 1968, the night before he was killed (text and audio versions)
The King Center
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A few more great quotes (hat tip @charlestlee):
“A minister cannot preach the glories of heaven while ignoring social conditions in his own community that cause [people] an earthly hell.”
“This hour in history needs a dedicated circle of transformed nonconformists. The saving of our world from pending doom will come not from the actions of a conforming majority but from the creative maladjustment of a transformed minority.”