The Legacy of MLK: The Inauguration and Beyond


The Legacy of MLK: The Inauguration and Beyond

Happy Monday and Happy Martin Luther King Day Everyone,

In so many ways, this Martin Luther King Day feels especially significant and symbolic in its timing. It arrives on the eve of the historic Wednesday Inauguration of President-elect Joseph Biden, the former Vice President to the first Black President of the United States, Barack Obama, and the Inauguration of the first Black and Asian Woman Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. This is a moment that I imagine Dr. King would have met with excitement, despite the fact that this is an inauguration surrounded as much by anger and uncertainty as it is by joy, relief, and celebration.

This Martin Luther King Day also follows two consecutive Wednesdays during which we also witnessed history in the making, but of another sort - that inauspicious, “date that will live in infamy” kind of history. The January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol building during the 2020 Presidential election certification process, the subsequent second impeachment of the President of the United States, and the presence of 25,000 National Guard troops in our nation’s capital, have all added a reflective and certainly ominous quality to this day. 

As much as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a towering figure in American history for the moral and spiritual weight of his oratory and the courage of his non-violent platform, recent events have made us all wonder if we are losing a grip on the gains that the Civil Rights Movement made for this country. Some look back on the racial unrest of 2020 and rightly wonder if anything has really changed at all.

To be sure, many black folks and people of color - our family members, friends, acquaintances, and members of the WNS community - experienced double the trauma of the January 6 insurrection. They anxiously watched thousands of angry, white insurrectionists break into, damage, and loot the Capitol Building, while wearing Anti-semitic garb, injuring police officers and causing lives to be lost, as they wondered what would happen next. And what they saw happen next was...mostly nothing. White anger and violence was met with well documented nonchalance, apathy, and even support from police officers, with some key exceptions including Eugene Goodman, the heroic Capitol Police officer. This stands in stark, painful contrast to the swift, forceful actions of police towards many Black and Brown protesters speaking up against police brutality, a topic that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke frequently about as well. Hopefully, the impeachment of Donald Trump and prosecution of the insurrectionists sends the message that aligning oneself with violent white supremacists for political power and cheering-on their basest instincts, cannot be tolerated in this country. It may allow students, especially students of color, to exhale just a bit, and think that this country might be fighting for them and their future, and for the rights of all students to live free from violence, hate and fear.

Because make no mistake: violence, hate and fear brought us to this moment. Questions about the legitimacy of the first and only Black President because of his birthplace, discriminatory travel bans, the events of Charlottesville, disparaging comments about people from predominantly Black and Arab nations, Congressmember’s espousal of baseless and legally debunked voter-fraud claims, and the President’s “Stand back and stand by” statement to members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and other violent, right-wing groups, all laid stones on the path that lead to our current state of affairs. Mind you, these are just the most recent and directly connected incidents. The presence of the Confederate flag and the hangman’s noose in the Capitol draw a clear through-line to other dark periods in our nation’s history, where white racist mob violence and divisive, anti-democratic responses to democratic societal change, endeavored to instill fear and further reinforce White Supremacy in the United States of America.

And Yet...

Today, this day, should also give us the opportunity and desire to look back into the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King’s nonviolent organizing, coalition building and strategizing to find the tools we need to face this moment. The reasons for Dr. King’s lasting impact can be found in the unrelenting way in which he spoke truth to people and to power, all in the name of the strongest force in our universe: Love. Love is critical, as it allows us to still see the humanity in those we might see as hateful, as we seek to right wrongs.

Our students, your children, are watching what the country and its leaders will do, and they are watching what we will do as well. They see our attitudes and word choice, as well as what we say and what we omit. We as teachers, leaders, parents and care-givers have the ability and responsibility to speak to our children about this moment and to teach them a new interdisciplinary life curriculum consisting of truth, courage, understanding, acceptance, selflessness, community, and love. Combined with our WNS core values of collaboration, responsibility, individuality, resiliency and compassion, our students will be poised to change the world, not just as leaders of industry, but as servant leaders, enabled to live out Dr. King’s greatest words.

It is not lost on me that a major nexus connecting this Martin Luther King Day to the Inauguration, January 6, and the second Impeachment is Washington, D.C. It is the location of quite possibly the most influential speech of the 20th Century, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. In 1963, Reverend Dr. King told the nation he hoped that his children would “one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” and that this was not just a hope, but a perpetual mission, as he stated, “no...we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The word inauguration means “the beginning or introduction of a system, policy, or period.” As we look forward to the Inauguration with hope and bated breath, let us begin a new period in which truth, justice, righteousness, equity and equality flow liberally in our own lives, always emanating from a fountain of selfless care, concern and love for others.

Michael Nelson