“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
The great irony of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words is that their power and prescience are often hidden by their eloquent simplicity. The above quote comes from his incomparable “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail.”
King wrote the letter in April 1963 — just a few months before the March on Washington. It is his response to white ministers who opposed the NONVIOLENT demonstrations that he led. (Sound familiar?) In my view, this letter is substantially more important to read, and to act on, than his “I Have A Dream” speech.
For decades I have reflected upon the profound anger, disappointment and sadness that he continually experienced due to the lack of support from “Christians” who did not support fighting for African Americans’ full humanity.
If America endures as a powerful nation — which is not a certainty at this point — our grandchildren will look back upon this period and see it as an inflection point. The last few years will be viewed as a pivotal period in history. We are experiencing what one observer has referred to as “a soft civil war.”
It is imperative for all Americans to understand that we are on the brink of destruction not from China or Russia, but because of each other. (Indeed, at least one recent poll indicates that most Americans believe that we are our own greatest threat.) But recognizing that threat is not enough. What we do in the coming weeks, months and years will determine whether the American experiment will continue.
The United States is the world’s oldest democracy by far, followed by Switzerland and New Zealand. We are, at present, the world’s only “superpower.” Yet, the mightiest empires — ones that no external force could destroy — frequently have collapsed from within. While we are not an empire in the technical sense, we do have one of the longest periods of continuous governance (and world dominance) in the modern era. We take that for granted at our peril.
Here’s the bottom line: If the overwhelming majority of white Americans do not decide to fight for the full equality for African Americans (and the poor of all races), this nation will fail. White Americans must learn to accept that the unapologetic demand for racial equality is not an attack on them as individuals; it is a moral imperative that is inextricably tied to their children’s future.
In short, they must decide whether to try to cling to a race-based privilege that their children will inevitably lose, or consciously decide to share that power so that their children will inherit a nation that is worth it.
The grotesque wealth inequality, the immoral condition of our public schools, the third-world condition of our poorest communities and the violation of human rights (including voter suppression) WILL lead to America’s downfall.
We cannot escape the forces of history, especially as regards the inevitable effects of structural, race-based inequality.
Dr. King was correct. We are “tied in a single garment of destiny.” We must decide whether to prevent our shared garment from becoming our collective noose.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.