This year marks the 50th year since we lost the greatest prophet for justice and social change in the history of the United States. I would have hoped that we would have progressed much more in fulfilling Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream than we have, and in many ways we have gone backwards, but it would not be a befitting honor to Dr. King to simply lament the lack of progress up to this moment. King would not want us to dwell in lament of the past and present, fear of the future, or hatred for the foes of justice. Dr. King would want us to look forward with love and hope (through the lens of realism) at what needs to be done nonviolently to move us towards the promised land of Beloved Community that he envisioned the night before his death.
I think the most fitting tribute to Dr. King on the day named in his honor is not to dwell so much on what his life and accomplishments meant during his time, but to ask what his life and accomplishments might contribute to bringing transformation for justice today and into the future. King knew he was not going to make it to the promised land with us, but he hoped to prepare the way. Honoring King means to keep preparing that way, to keep creating the road towards the Beloved Community, to keep bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice.
And what does bending the arc of the moral universe towards justice look like in the age of Trumpism? How do we keep King’s dream of Beloved Community alive in the Nightmare of Trump’s narcissistic chaos of racism, xenophobia, sexism, greed, exploitation of the environment, Islamophobia, and discrimination against persons who are LGBTQ+? How shall we overcome when a blatant racist holds the most powerful office in the land and perhaps the world?
One thing I think King would tell us today is that we cannot allow our work of resistance to be overly focused on only resisting Trump. Don’t get me wrong, I believe if King were alive today, he would be resisting Trump with the same energy and passion with which he resisted the prominent racists of his day. That being said, King knew that racists do not come to political power in a vacuum. Their ability to gain, maintain, and misuse power grows out of systems that perpetuate the evil that their hold on power personifies.
The primary goal must be to transform the systems that have created the context in which someone like Trump could come to power, and those systems are social, economic, cultural, and political. They are systems that have perpetuated racism, sexism, poverty, militarism, and exploitation of the environment. They are systems that have created a social and political environment in which a truly horrible person could be elected President of the United States of America. Horrible systems have paved the way for a horrible person to be president. Unjust systems have corroded the structures of our society and made it possible for Trumpism to come to power.
King knew that the evils within the world could not be overcome only through changing individual hearts and minds. He knew that revolutionary change of the systems is needed. Only then can we create the more just, peaceful, participatory, and sustainable society that King called the Beloved Community.
If we only remove Trump, and we do not transform the systems that made a Trump presidency possible, we will be dooming future generations to different but still pernicious forms of Trumpism, and given the fierce urgency of now to address the global economic and ecological challenges facing the human community, we cannot afford not to transform our current unjust and unsustainable systems. This work of systemic transformation is a work that honors King both today and in the days to come. Dream or nightmare? The choice is ours, but we had better choose quickly, for as King was apt to remind us, there is a such thing as too late.