Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday passed by without a word from us at SF, so I want to just jot down some quick personal thoughts.
I first saw Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech in 10th grade in my world cultures class Or maybe it was contemporary problems. Regardless, I remember the classroom because the teacher who showed it to us was my favorite teacher in high school, Scott Pettis from Middletown High. The speech had a profound affect on me. I was just at the age, 15, when my values and thoughts outside my own little world were starting to come together and gel, and Dr. King’s words reinforced many of the values I was already starting to embrace.
Few speeches have moved me in that way since, although Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 DNC convention gave me a similar feeling. (Note: That is not an endorsement. We are non-partisan, after all.)
Embracing Dr. King’s legacy is a common practice now. Public officials of all types and stripes laud his accomplishments and his message. Sadly, Dr. King’s message seems lost on many of those same public officials the other 364 days of the year.
These officials forget Dr. King’s message when they implement policies of mass incarceration, which have disproportionately affected minority communities. We’re losing an entire generation of black men- men who are my age- to the prison industrial complex with 1/3 (or so) of young black men in the custody of the Department of Corrections in one form or another. According to a board member of the NAACP of PA, there were 80,000 African-Americans in prison at the time of the Brown v. Board of Education, and today there are more than one million.
These officials forget Dr. King’s message when they continue to prop up the broken system of capital punishment, which adversely affects the poor and minorities, and refuse to fund our state’s public defender system. Nine of every 10 people on death row in PA were too poor to afford an attorney at trial. A defendant represented by the public defenders’ office in most counties in the Commonwealth will meet with his/her lawyer for the first time just a few minutes before his preliminary hearing.
These officials forget Dr. King’s message when they try every trick imaginable to suppress the vote of minorities and the poor. Dr. King believed in expanding the vote. Some of our elected officials believe in restricting the vote through photo ID requirements, limited voting machines in poor precincts, felon disenfranchisement, and other regressive policies.
And there are numerous non-ACLU issues which show a lack of appreciation for Dr. King’s legacy. I won’t get into them here since this is ACLU territory, but you know what they are.
ACLU-PA appropriately designates Dr. King’s birthday as a holiday, but, frankly, I wouldn’t mind working because this work is about carrying on his legacy. I did spend Monday doing something that felt appropriate for the occasion, but it is imperative that those of us who care about carrying on Dr. King’s message of hope and freedom in the 21st century find ways to do that all year long.
Andy in Harrisburg