“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.“
– The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
At this time every year we have the same kind of conversation around the dinner table. My kids are growing up in a different world, one even more thoroughly defined by the struggles and triumphs of Dr. King’s generation than mine was.
But as they grow older, they see the work left to do more plainly. It is disheartening and difficult to watch those who once thought that the old black and white news film of dogs and firehoses was a document of a black and white history – a story of races and realities laid bare for history to pass its judgement. Now that they are in school they’ve seen and heard what racism is. The struggle is still alive, and every year more than just black and white.
We talk about what it means to be alive today and confront the work that needs to be done. We can’t help but speculate that at least some of the attacks on an African-American president are motivated by hate even as we list where we are also disappointed by him. Perhaps the real measure of success is that the race of the president matters less than what he has been able to accomplish or not. On the flip side, that is truly what made Dr. King so important in the end.
So we talk about race and still there is something missing in the conversation. The need for new leaders in every generation comes up, but to lead us to what? What kind of world is being made around us every day that we will have to live through tomorrow?
Much of what I want to tell them is what was not done, can never be, not in one man’s lifetime or in all the lifetime’s of all of us still here on this Earth. The ongoing struggle for a society that is just and decent is eternal. The kids ask me to tell the stories of the Old South and tell them we’ve gotten somewhere. It seems to give them comfort now that they understand how much is left to do. Progress was made, after all. There is no need nor no time for cynicism. There is a legacy to be true to.
I do not blame my kids for wanting to take stock of how far we have gotten. This holiday is something like a picnic stop under the shade of a great oak by the side of a long road. As we rest our weary legs for a moment it is only natural to buck up the strength of the next generation by showing them how far we have gotten. “You see that mountain, over there? We crossed that one, long ago.” And under the shade of a great tree we can recount the stories of each milestone along the crooked road that got us to where we are, right now, this moment, this day.
When I think of Dr. King Day as a picnic it seems to come out right. I can smile and tell them the stories without making them fear the weary hours yet to pass on the road ahead.
We celebrate today because we need that strength for tomorrow. The work of Dr. King is never done, not as long as there is fear and hunger and injustice. There are those who twist what Dr. King has said just as they have twisted the words of Jesus, trying to use his life for their own gain. They have their reward, I am sure. The work is constant and unending.
But what we learn from the holiday today is that this work is joyful and fun. These come in two forms, one from the moments that make up the journey itself and one that stops for a while and takes stock of just how far we have gone. Both are good, and both are what life is about. As sure as there is no joy in injustice or hunger, there is a lot of pleasure to be taken in a life based on doing what we can.
Live life on purpose. You can read that several ways, and I mean them all. That’s what I learned from Dr. King.
In the end, I let my kids tell me how much has been accomplished every year on this day because it makes me feel good that they know how far we have gotten. But when the holiday picnic is over and the road beckons us once again, I know my job is to tell them the next milestone to look for. We pack up the basket and head down again tomorrow, full of purpose and hope and a sense of great fun knowing that there really isn’t any other way.
Happy Birthday, Dr. King. I know you’ll understand if we pause just a moment to say that before we get back to the work ahead.