By Cedric Lundy, Pastor of Justice
How does one celebrate a day like Martin Luther King Jr. Day? It’s the same question some of us ask in regards to other days similar to it: Presidents Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day. When it comes to these federal holidays, how each day is observed, if at all, seems to be disconnected from the significance of the person or people being remembered. In the case of MLK Day, a lot of people, myself included, have taken to posting their favorite quote of King’s on social media. Yet, in large part, MLK Day serves to remind me that, while we may think of King fondly, we are still largely confounded by how to break free from the societal systems that keep us segregated.
As a junior in high school I attended an all-boy Catholic School in suburban metro Detroit. Out of the approximately 980 students at the school, 21 of us were Black Americans. It being my first year there, I was informed that school was in session on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but, since I was black, I could take an excused absence. The white students were not given the same exemption.
A few years ago I took a group of middle school students into uptown Charlotte early on a Saturday morning to pass out bag lunches and care packages to the homeless. I had a bad habit of scheduling these service opportunities on road race Saturdays, which can make getting from South Charlotte to uptown like navigating a labyrinth. On this particular day there wasn’t a race to contend with but, instead, a parade. I didn’t even know Charlotte did a MLK Day parade, but given how many black people there were in uptown that early on a Saturday morning, it wasn’t hard to figure out what was going on. It wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that my twelve or so students, all of whom were white, were the only white people to be seen on Tryon Street that morning along the parade route.
The year the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture opened, my wife Emma and I, along with two friends of ours, went on MLK Day. The place was absolutely mobbed, however Emma and our two friends were the only white people there on a day when all of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had the day off.
Despite his honored legacy of fighting against racial injustice and inequality (and, less mentioned, his brief foray into fighting against economic injustice and poverty), the fifty years that have passed since King’s death have proven at least one thing: the systems at the foundation of our culture and society and their penchant for keeping us divided from one another based on race and class have not been eradicated, but have merely adapted to the times. While the way we think about people of different races may have changed and become more inclusive, our society and culture have remained steadfast in keeping us excluded from one another and have allowed us to feel more familiar with race-based caricatures than actual people of different racial and cultural backgrounds.
Our schools are still largely segregated. Our neighborhoods are still largely segregated. Our religious gathering places are largely segregated. Our work places are still largely segregated. While countless hearts have been affected by Dr. King, our societal systems have managed to persist in keeping us largely separated.
Those of us African Americans who have managed to assimilate into the larger, dominant white society appear to be exceptions to the rule, and our assimilation often comes at a cost. We are often viewed as pariahs by those who consider us sellouts, for in their minds we have taken on the caricatures of white people in order to be accepted. And yet we are keenly aware of moments and places where we are still judged based upon the color of our skin regardless of the content of our character. Likewise, talk to white people who have either been born into a minority community or have made attempts to bridge racial divides by going into minority communities, and many will describesimilar experiences of never truly being accepted as the minority and of being viewed as misguided by their white peers.
I think if he were here today, Dr. King would be encouraged by the softening of our hearts to embrace the other, but discouraged by the resilience of our social systems to keep us separated while allowing just enough exceptions to the rule to make us feel like we are getting somewhere. I think he would challenge us to tap further into our imagination and creativity for how we can overcome together. I think he would continue to make all of us uncomfortable with our contentment with the way things are, calling us instead to press up against the system to finally realize what could be.