Like the passing of Nelson Mandela, our annual celebration of the life of Martin Luther King gives us a chance to pause and reflect on how few, far between, and essential are those inspired leaders who have the confidence to call upon our nobler selves.
This is a time of jeopardy in America for those values that Dr. King, without apology, named and named again: justice, equality, respect, and compassion. Those words, themselves, are beleaguered today. They are all too often missing in our public discourse, silenced by what the Nobelist J. M. Coetzee called “a new, predatory economic rationalism” – which I take to be the theory that “winning” and “losing” are the dynamics of a successful community.
I disagree with that theory. Dr. King had it right. When it comes to the basic rights of human life – rights including, but beyond, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – one person’s loss is a loss to all, and either everybody “wins,” or no one does.
We honor Dr. King best by defending our shared well being, not our victories over each other. Our people’s rights include access to a decent job and living wages, to health care, to shelter, to learning, to fair laws fairly enforced, to a fair tax system, and to a government that is both limited in its invasion of our private lives and effective in its service to our shared and public needs. The enemies are not each other, but rather poverty, inequality, suffering, and the vestiges of racism.
This is a crucial time in America for firm and public rededication to the values that Dr. King gave such strong voice to. Let Massachusetts lead in that chorus.