Fifty years ago this month, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at his hotel in Memphis.
On the anniversary of his death, April 4, I visited the monument honouring King at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Flanked by rows of cherry trees in full bloom, the granite statue depicting King looks stoically out at the Tidal Basin with an expression the sculptor intended to be of hope and relief.
But not on this dreary day. As rain fell from heavy grey clouds and onto the monument, raindrops streaked down his cheeks as if he were crying.
And yet, the tears seemed fitting.
Half a century after the peak of the civil rights movement, how far have we really come? Fifty years after his death, what would MLK Jr. think of America if he were still alive today?
Are We Really Still Here?
A couple of years ago, I traveled to Birmingham, Alabama on a business trip. My host picked me up from the airport, apologizing for being late. There had been a racial incident between some black and white students at his son’s high school earlier that day, which had called for the school to shut down temporarily.
The next day, I visited the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. My heart broke as I read the bittersweet inscription on the wall immediately upon entering the building, a quote from MLK Jr.:
“I like to believe that the negative extremes of Birmingham’s past will resolve into the positive and utopian extreme of her future; that the sins of a dark yesterday will be redeemed in the achievements of a bright tomorrow.”
How I wish we were living in the utopian extreme he envisioned. But we are far, far from it.
Still in the twenty-first century, racism actively permeates high schools and college campuses—from crude acts like stapling cotton branches to Confederate flags to violence and mass shootings. Not only do white supremacists and hate groups still exist, but their numbers have actually increased in recent years, especially in the wake of Trump's election to presidency.
In my activist journey, I’ve had to briefly pause many times to ask myself: are we really still here?
Women in North America still have to march for basic human rights a hundred years after being granted the right to vote?
We still need movements like #MeToo to declare that sexual assault isn’t okay?
We still have countries that criminalize people who are gay?
We are still so prejudiced that we even need to declare something so basic as “Black Lives Matter”?
Have we truly made any meaningful progress?
Undoubtedly, we’ve had stepping stones in the path toward racial equality. Jim Crow laws have been abolished. Schools and buses and public washrooms are no longer legally segregated. Voting no longer depends on the pigmentation of a person’s skin. And African Americans have made incredible accomplishments in the last fifty years: earning Olympic gold medals, flying solo around the world and into space, receiving Nobel Peace Prizes and Academy awards, and becoming executives in everything from Ivey League Schools to being President of the United States.
But what hasn't changed is that people are still broken.
Relationships are still fragmented.
Communities are still divided.
As long as people buy into the destructive value systems that consider some humans to be more worthy than others, we will still have racism.
We will still see violent rallies like Charlottesville.
Police brutalities will continue to claim the lives of people like Philando Castile and Alton Sterling and a long list of others.
Black churches will still be attacked and burned to the ground.
As King himself said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Naturally, laws will keep improving and the black community will continue to rise. But until we can acknowledge the humanity and value of people who don't look like us, our progress will be limited. Justice will be limited.
Despair Without Defeat
As I watched the raindrop tears streaming down the stone face of MLK Jr’s statue, the answer was right in front of me the whole time. Etched into the memorial is a quote from his infamous “I Have a Dream” speech: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”
Yes, we are still living in times of despair.
America is still broken.
Our world is still broken.
And, quite frankly, I do think King would be devastated with the state of the US today—heartbroken, but not without hope.
Why? Because I don’t think MLK Jr. was only about fighting against something.
I think he also stood for something—like love.
I believe there’s more to the current American narrative than racism, however prevalent it may be.
I believe there's hope for our world, no matter how broken it may be.
We can (and should) mourn that we still need advocates for racial minorities. We should let it anger us, but not make us bitter. We should stand against it, while also standing for all that’s good in this world. There’s a lot of work left for us to do, but there is also much for us to celebrate and enjoy, too.
Our world is messy and broken, but it’s also a beautiful place worth redeeming.