Recently, civil rights icon John Lewis criticized Donald Trump, saying he wouldn't be a "legitimate president," and Trump, true to form, issued a factually challenged attack on Lewis for being "All talk, talk, talk - no action." For added irony, this occurred just before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and Lewis of course actually marched with King and was severely beaten in the course of fighting for voting rights. Meanwhile, Trump was elected in the first presidential election after John Roberts and other conservatives on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Lewis helped secure. Voting rights continue to be under attack and there's plenty of bad faith evident from conservatives and Republicans on the subject. Given MLK Day and Trump's looming inauguration, I found myself pondering these issues and some words by King.
"True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice." (1955)
"No justice, no peace" is the rally version of this one. I've seen many pieces, often with a scolding tone, arguing how everyone who didn't vote for Trump should try to understand and sympathize with Trump voters, who are typified as white, working class and economically anxious (the working class part isn't entirely true). I've seen much less discussion of the economic anxieties of folks who aren't white and why their concerns matter less, or conversations about Trump's horribly plutocratic policies, a standard conservative/Republican approach that will not help anyone but the rich. (Republicans keep invoking the middle class and running against the predictable consequences of their own economic policies and then offer as their solution more extreme versions of the same.) Nor have I seen anyone who's complained about how mean liberals are to conservatives address the issue of Trump proposing to discriminate against Muslims (which was a planned statement, not one of his many crazy, off-the-cuff remarks). That wasn't a deal-breaker for Trump voters, and I've yet to hear from those complaining about social discomfort whether they approve of the loss of actual rights for a minority group or just don't consider it that big an issue. (The two concerns aren't equivalent.) We're not hearing honest and in-depth discussion of any of this stuff, and that prevents any kind of meaningful reconciliation. True peace can't be achieved through capitulating on essential rights or accepting a rigged system of justice and prosperity.
"The time is always right to do something right." (1964)
This one serves as a gut-check. It's not always hard to tell right from wrong; the kicker is whether we're willing to deal with the hassle. King championed some causes that were unpopular in his time and many still are – voting rights, racial equality, aid for the poor and opposition to war, to name a few. Activism isn't easy or quick or glamourous, nor is there any guarantee of success. All that work may never pay off in the material world, at least not in one's lifetime. And sometimes even when that work succeeds, it may be undone later and the same struggle will need to be refought.
"If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way." (Often attributed to King, although I haven't been able to verify a source.)
It's easy to look at the current political climate and the year to come with dread, or feel overwhelmed by all the battles to come. It's easy to get burnt out as an activist. I like this line because it makes those challenges a bit more manageable. No one has the energy to fight every struggle. Realistically, with all three branches of government in Republican control, the destructive ideology of movement conservatism and the level of conscience demonstrated by elected officials and political operatives, plenty of good policies are likely to be shredded and many bad measures will be enacted. It may be possible to block some of them. But it’ll be important to call out wrongdoing, go on record and bring that up in future battles, especially elections. And although it may be possible to win over some of the people who voted for Obama and then Trump, it would be wise to register many new voters, motivate registered nonvoters and fight to make sure that more people who want to vote actually can do so. The long game for a healthy democracy depends a great deal on small things.