Columnist Eric Nakajima: Lessons from Dr. King’s unfinished legacy

Thursday, April 05, 2018

The 50th memorial of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a good time to reflect on his legacy and its meaning for us today.

There is a distance of a half-century between us and King’s dream of a socially and economically just world. Generations have grown up and felt the immediacy of King’s call to action given the “fierce urgency of now.”

On gun violence, discrimination, sexual assault, income inequality, climate change and Black Lives Matter we stand up and we call for change. It is energizing and inspiring. But the gulf between 1968 and 2018 can also taunt us — are our actions guided by the same conviction that the dream is achievable? And if so, how do we get there?

In his final book in 1967, King asked the question, “Where do we go from here: chaos or community?” Over the past year in the United States — and my hometown of Amherst — that feels like a relevant question.

Anger and division are palpable. There is a sense that disagreements of opinion represent fundamental differences as people. Seemingly overnight, broad grassroots movements have arisen that express passion, urgency and hope for change.

Do we organize to stop a war? Eliminate poverty? End discrimination? Heal a damaged planet? Perhaps our times are not so different. So the question repeats itself: Will we transform our protests and concerns into an enduring movement toward justice and community?

King answered that question by reaffirming his faith in the method of nonviolent social change and expanding his focus to include economic justice. He built and led a broad coalition of working and poor people of all colors and backgrounds, premised on the belief that economic justice for all was necessary for America to fulfill its promise of freedom.

King taught us that our differences, when knitted together to common purpose, make us stronger. Rainbow coalitions can be powerful enough to change laws, knock down barriers, and renew the promise of America.

King’s explanation for the workings of nonviolent social change reminds us that community is composed of relationships based on familiarity, respect and empathy. As he famously noted, “darkness cannot out drive out darkness, only light can do that.”

In that same sermon, he went on to observe that “hate scars the soul and distorts the personality” of both the one who hates and the one who is hated. That is an acute insight, similar to the Buddhist concept of karma, of how community can fragment at both the personal level as well as from broader economic and social forces.

We cannot hope to build a community grounded in justice unless our political efforts incorporate practices that respect the humanity of both our allies and opponents, and create the opportunity for reconciliation. That is one of the enduring lessons of King’s extraordinary legacy of moral leadership.

We live in challenging times that test our conviction that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But a look back to events in 1968 suggests that we have been here before.

In our time, the example of King serves as a resolute retort to the coarse, spiteful ignorance so freely offered by President Donald Trump. It also offers the surest method for pulling America back from the brink. Fighting Trump’s fire with fire will simply burn our house down to its foundations.

We should pick up King’s unfinished legacy and build new coalitions dedicated to justice and nonviolent social change. I invite each of you to commit to working together to do just that and, to paraphrase former president Barack Obama, become the change we want to see in the world.

Eric Nakajima, of Amherst, is chairman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and a candidate for 3rd Hampshire District state representative.