The Fierce Urgency of Now

Statement on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday, 2022

On this Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, we return to places of hallowed ground—from the 16th Street Baptist Church, to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, to the Lorraine Motel—to honor those whose lives are the foundation of our contemporary liberation struggle. We remember King, and all of our ancestors, who demonstrated that freedom is seized and the battle takes many forms, such as court cases, legislation, and protest, like the non-violent direct action central to the strategies of the Modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. Throughout United States history, Black people and their allies, have forced America to confront contradictions in our social systems, founding documents, and laws. We are their legacy. Our work equips us and the next generation to pursue reconciliation—and ultimately the Beloved Community, where agape love, sacrificial mutual care for one another, and shalom, abundant flourishing of all people, reign.

What will it take for America to have what King called a “revolution of values…?”

Three laws are often considered the triumvirate of the Modern Civil Rights Movement: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in education and employment; The Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated barriers erected to prevent Blacks from casting ballots; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which banned discrimination in the rental and sale of homes. Much of what counts as progress for Black people in the twentieth century rests on these laws. Yet these statutes were insufficient for fully correcting historical harm and ushering in a racially and economically inclusive future.

Take the Voting Rights Act. It established that the U.S. Justice Department must “pre-clear” voting laws in states and local jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination. This provision was struck down in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court Case Shelby County v. Holder. Today, states across the country are erecting new barriers to prevent those most socially marginalized from exercising the franchise, particularly economically distressed and racially minoritized people. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, currently stalled in Congress, would reinstitute and expand pre-clearance. The Freedom to Vote Act, another pending bill, seeks to protect the integrity of our elections. It would, among other things, mandate: at least two weeks of early voting and voting by mail, automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and same-day and online voter registration, as well as make election day a holiday, protect voters from purges and election officers from intimidation, and prohibit partisan gerrymandering. And importantly, given the disproportionate burden Black people bear from mass incarceration, the bill restores federal voting rights to formerly imprisoned people upon their release. Recently these bills were combined into the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. If you believe that all 18-year old U.S. citizens have a right to vote and that their ballot decisions should determine election outcomes, call and e-mail your U.S. Senators and Representatives to tell them you support Freedom to Vote (find your Congressional delegation here: Senate and House of Representatives).

That these bills are necessary 56 years after the original Voting Rights Act signals that we must pursue new horizons of freedom and be ever vigilant that we maintain our gains. This legislation also invites a more fundamental question: What will it take for America to have what King called a “revolution of values,” so that our social systems are forever more not oriented toward hoarding by the few at the expense of the many, but rather the thriving of all people?

In his speech “Beyond Vietnam,” which King gave at Riverside Baptist Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, a year to the day before he was slain, he issued a call to action and started to answer this question.

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth…We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation…Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.

May we, like King, reach for shared prosperity and justice in 2022—and may we feel “the fierce urgency of now”!

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