If he were alive today, what would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. say about the America he’d find fifty years on? He would see fear of immigrants and refugees, of people “not like us,” a country where “give me your tired, your poor” no longer speaks to many Americans. He’d see racism towards black people still thriving in new and old ways. He’d find a country too willing to use lethal force, both at home and abroad, when nonviolent alternatives are available. King wrote that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.” How would he apply this prescription to our present-day ills?
The first step toward realizing King’s dream of a more peaceful world is to start in our own local communities. The middle school I attend in suburban New Jersey tries to spread the message of respect for others who are different, but many students don’t seem to fully understand the idea. Recently, a fellow student said in class: “We need to keep our troops in the U.S. to protect us from Syrian refugees.” Since then I have heard intolerant remarks from classmates on a regular basis. It might have to do with the fact that the town I live in is affluent and mostly white, a place where minorities don’t tend to live. We are taught to respect others and learn about other cultures; yet there are no teachers in our school who are black. Americans who are not immigrants or refugees have committed mass shootings more times than any of us can count. But too many people project their fears onto “foreigners” who have little likelihood of harming us, while allowing military-style assault weapons to be freely available to our citizens and used to kill Americans in staggering numbers.
Would my classmate have been scared of refugees from distant lands if our teacher was clearly of Arab or Muslim descent? How could she be afraid of a three-year old boy who just wanted to feel safe? How could she fear a mother who is tired of lying awake at night listening to bombs outside her window? Our school shouldn’t just talk the talk; it should walk the walk. We need greater diversity among our teachers, and a more serious commitment from our schools to teaching respect for differences. Perhaps then more students would understand that minorities are not people to fear.
Next, we must do more to fix the inequities in our country. Police kill unarmed black people and minorities far more often than whites. This is a stain on our country. Police officers need to be better trained on how to defuse and de-escalate in many situations. There are countless cases in which police officers could have put their guns down and solved a problem without lethal force. The U.S. Department of Justice has been investigating major police departments across the United States, including in Newark, where the city is on the verge of signing an agreement to reform the police department and accept a federal monitor. President Obama is using the law to impose reforms on police forces that show a pattern of civil rights violations against minorities. Just as the federal government had to enact civil rights laws in King’s day that required the states to end discrimination against African Americans and other minorities, today it is using civil rights laws to make sure that abuses by police against people of color are brought to an end. By supporting and building on these efforts, we can bring greater peace and harmony to our nation.
The last step to fulfilling Dr. King’s dream is repairing the world. The blood of people from other countries, a lot of them innocent civilians, is on our conscience from unjust war. There is a correlation between police using deadly force as their first resort in our cities and our leaders using war as their first choice in other countries. In 2003, President Bush invaded Iraq because he thought that overthrowing a dictator and imposing democracy would bring peace. Instead, it brought about civil war, terrorism, and increased hatred between different religious and ethnic groups. That helped cause today’s refugee crisis.
Similarly, King believed the Vietnam war was immoral and that it was fought for unsound reasons. He felt that the great resources used for destruction could have been devoted to strengthening civil rights and reducing economic inequality in America. Instead, the war left both Americans and Vietnamese much worse off, just as the Iraq war has brought great misery and insecurity to us and to the people of the Middle East.
In 1967, King wrote his final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” He talked about his vision for the United States and the world, which included erasing poverty, decreasing unemployment, providing quality education, making peace between nations, and achieving equal civil rights for all. Sadly, much of his vision remains unfulfilled today. Now my generation is charged with making these ideals come true. Those who deny that we face these challenges are standing in the way of solutions that we sorely need. As King once said, “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.”