This is a piece I wrote last year for the MLK Oratorical Contest at New York University last year. I work to remind people of these words, everyday, not just in January.
In 1955, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took a stand that greatly impacted his career trajectory, and his legacy. The young Dr. King became the leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a yearlong economic protest of the public transit system. During this time, Dr. King spoke about the importance of the boycott. He addressed a crowd of 5,000 at Holt Street Baptist Church and stated,
“There comes a time, my friends, when people are tired of being plunged across the abyss of humiliation, where they experience the bleakness of nagging despair. There comes a time when people get tired of being pushed out of the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amid the piercing chill of an alpine November. There comes a time.”
Tonight, we gather at New York University 61 years into the future, yet Dr. King’s words reek of truth, and a conviction on our society. The “abyss of humiliation” Dr. King spoke of is omnipresent in 2016. Since Dr. King’s remarks, names like Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and too many more, serve as a slap across the face of social justice.
The sting of King’s words have become a pain and grief that we have carried for so long, that we embrace it as we would a friend. Let me be clear and give this grief a name. The nagging despair of American Society is inequity, birthed by Imperialism, raised by white supremacy, and irrevocably bound to racism.
Many are quick to defend the legacy of Dr. King, or the Civil Rights Movement, by uplifting the progress that has been made. Perhaps that is true, perhaps it is not. I am not interested in such debates because, I am of the belief that a 1950’s leader cannot and will not solve the problems we face in 2016.
Can we learn from Dr. King’s words and actions? Can we model our organizing after the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)? Absolutely! However, we must acknowledge that more is needed. There comes a time when we must fall from the limbs of the tree and sprout roots of our own. Our society is different than the society of Dr. King. The systemic problems we face have evolved since the Civil Rights Movement.
Now, I would like to take a minute to discuss systems. The thing about systems is, sometimes they need to be reset, provided a boost, or an override if you will, so they don’t go haywire. All programs and applications must be shut down, so that the system can operate as intended. This can be done several times, but eventually, the operating system becomes antiquated, outdated and inadequate for use.
There comes a time when the operating system must be replaced. There come a time for revolution.
Dr. King too, knew this when he remarked, “The dispossessed of this nation, the poor, both white and Negro, live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of their fellow citizens, but against structures through which the society is refusing to lift the load of poverty.”
Revolutions can take many forms, but they almost always are sparked by students, by innovators, by the oppressed. There comes a time when we must move from pupil to crusader. For those like me, who are members of the Class of 2016, the future is now for us. Sure, there are assignments to complete and classes to attend, but in the near future, we will be decried a diploma with the full expectation that we will practice our craft in service to our profession. Doctors, lawyers, business leaders educators and public servants will gather on May 18th.
In the wake of the current student movements, we have a choice. We can tinker at current systems – change drug policies, diversify the student body and restructure Common Core State Standards, effectively resetting the system.
Or, we can dig deeper and demand justice. The American system needs a revolution of consciousness, a revolution of love. Small tinkers and restarts are inadequate. Legalizing marijuana or adding more students and staff of color does not offer what Michelle Alexander, by way of Dr. Cornell West, calls a prophetic fire.
In an address to students at Union Seminary last year, Alexander states, “we desperately need you to bring your prophetic fire, I am asking you, begging you to speak in your own voice, your own truth, and with a fearlessness and a determination that honors your most sacred beliefs and moral commitments. We need you … to speak your truths so that we might all muster the courage to do the same.”
Drug laws that legalize the product without humanizing the user mask the truth. Similarly, adding more student and staff of color without equipping all students and staff with the resources to discuss racial injustice, masks the truth. It appeases the “nagging despair”, but ignores the “abyss of humiliation”.
This, abyss of humiliation is a cancer to justice and equality. If we as students, as citizens, as human beings are not prepared to take our skills, our knowledge and yes … our privilege into battle for a revolution of consciousness, I fear we have wasted a great deal of time, and money, in pursuit of higher education.
For, as Dr. King once said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
There comes a time when the only way to free ourselves, is to fight for the freedom of others. There comes a time, when the time, is now.