Thinking of Martin Luther King: Take Wise Action

How shall I be a citizen? What will I do to participate in the democracy I believe in?

 

Friends, colleagues, and clients are grieving. The things we work for—living wages, decent working conditions, respect for and inclusion of the differences that make us who we are, civility, healthy environment, universal quality education, safe housing, health care, and so much more, are threatened anew and differently. The dog whistle of the past 50+ years is gone, replaced by a full throated claim of white nationalism that is both archaic and current. Even minimal civility is replaced by a refusal to be “politically correct” and a willingness to otherize anyone who dissents.

As we enter a new era, I am more convinced than ever that our ability to create justice, inclusion, equity, and care, depends on our ability to imagine and enact what those words mean in practice. To describe the experience we can have when our vision is real and take the actions needed to create the experience, is to bring forth that world. I am ever grateful for the clients that allow me to join in their visions and help bring them forward.

Wise action means choosing those activities that align values, purpose and action. Dr. King’s explanation of the power of non-violence is not just about nonviolence per se. Rather, he locates its utility in the context of the time, in the history of the struggle for freedom up until that time. In that context, King wrote in Why We Can’t Wait

To the Negro in 1963…it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice. In addition to being consistent with his religious precepts, it served his need to act on his own for his own liberation. It enabled him to transmute hatred into constructive energy, to seek not only to free himself but to free his oppressor from his sins. This transformation, in turn, had the marvelous effect of changing the face of the enemy. The enemy the Negro faced became not the individual who had oppressed him but the evil system which permitted that individual to do so.

In our time, how do we shift from us vs them to we. What is the circle we draw big enough to include everyone? We need not give up our values or priorities. Rather, like Dr. King, we can identify our values and examine what we are creating in our own activism.

In a perverse way, I am grateful to Trump. He has made clear things I cherish like civility and steady movement towards freedom and fairness for all. I am convinced that our success lies in ways to embody our values and widen our circles. By focusing on the deep structures of democracy and not just the short-term results, we can create meaningful results through just means. Like Dr. King, we can interrogate not only the outcomes we want but the way we get there. What do we convey with our actions? Our speech?

Wise action for me means identifying clearly my values and aspirations and translating those into action right now. I notice people I encounter are kinder, more friendly, like after 9/11. People are more willing to take care of each other, to live community in ways big and small. I’ve started greeting people more often and fully when I’m out. It feels small but a dollop of friendliness can’t hurt and I trust it will open to something larger.

In the coming year and beyond, I intend to continue to deepen dialogue and powerful conversations in an expanding circle of community. I will support organizations and paths that inform, explore, and challenge on the way to change. I look forward to supporting organizations and communities that want to create and model their vision.

 

What will you do?