Today, as we honor the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we read his words in a context that feels in many ways to be no less fraught, no less complicated, no less urgent than the time in which he first delivered them.
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Today, as some in the highest seats of power seek not progress but provocation, not the cementing of equality but the rolling back of hard-won rights, not unification but the scapegoating on which their platform so desperately depends, the Reverend’s words are not some dusty relics of our nation’s past, but rather a testimony to our present.
Our nonviolent direct-action program has as its objective not the creation of tensions, but the surfacing of tensions already present. We set out to precipitate a crisis situation that must open the door to negotiation. I am not afraid of the words “crisis” and “tension.” I deeply oppose violence, but constructive crisis and tension are necessary for growth. Innate in all life, and all growth, is tension. Only in death is there an absence of tension. To cure injustices, you must expose them before the light of human conscience and the bar of public opinion, regardless of whatever tensions that exposure generates.
I have read those words more times than I can count over the years and yet I find myself reading them again and again and yet again still. Dr. King was murdered before many of us were born and yet still he calls us to action: to introspection, to justice, to the nonviolent resistance of retrogression and the unwavering insistence upon forward growth.
As much as I deplore violence, there is one evil that is worse than violence, and that’s cowardice.
In an age when retribution is as immediate as it is devastating, even the smallest acts of protest can be daunting.
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.
And yet he calls us still. Because his words are not some dusty relics of our nation’s past, but rather a testimony to our present.
The time is always right to do what is right.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
January, 1929 – April, 1968