As long as girl children all around the world are forced to end their education, leave their parents’ home and become child brides or prostitutes before they reach the age of puberty, there is still work to do.
As long as women earn only $.75 for every dollar earned by a man for comparable work, there is still work to do.
As long as two-thirds of our adult population is obese or overweight and obesity-related type-2 diabetes is considered epidemic by health care professionals, there is still work to do.
As long as the United States has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world such that one in every 18 men in the United States is behind bars or being monitored and 44% of those prisoners are black, there is still work to do.
As long as human consumption patterns continue to destroy the Earth’s biophysical resources and ecosystems, when the scientific consensus is that human-induced global warming is a fact, there is work to do.
And, all of this work is fiercely urgent . . . leaving us to ask, if not us, then who, if not now, then when?
The answer of course is that the time for action is always right now and every revolution begins with just one person’s idea of a more just, sane and better world. We don’t have to all solve every problem, but we must each take it upon ourselves to be the solution for at least one problem. The work you do doesn’t have to lead to a Voting Rights Act, the dismantling of apartheid or worldwide nuclear disarmament to be meaningful or important. Perhaps it’s as simple as demonstrating and having a conversation with a male child about not accepting the privileges life may offer him because he is male or acknowledging and actively rejecting your own privileges – whether by your race, gender, sexual orientation, economic class, national origin or citizenship – and making sure whatever benefit you have derived from that privilege, it is available to all people. It may take the form of affording a job or a promotional or mentoring opportunity to someone who does not look like you or have the advantages you have, or simply paying attention and helping others pay attention to the products we purchase so that our children and grandchildren won’t have to figure out how to extract from their drinking water the chemicals we thoughtlessly and daily flush down the drain.
If you want to have a meaningful existence in this world, you must find a purpose in your life that is bigger than you and greater than the amount of material possessions you can collect before you die.
What Dr. King understood better than most is that we are all inextricably tied - there is no freedom for any of us unless there is freedom for all of us. And “us” is not narrowly limited to those who share our race, our gender, our sexual orientation, our national origin or geographic boundaries. Just because those who are marginalized may serve as our canaries in the mine does not mean that the poison we pump into out atmosphere won’t eventually cause our very own demise. It may not happen in our generation, but the effects of the dream or nightmare we create here and now will be felt in the next or the next or the next generation.
Two years ago when we buried my father, the chorus of an old freedom song reverberated in my mind for months. It was the soul stirring song written by one of the movement’s superstars, Ms. Bernice Johnson Reagon, which captured the words and spirit of her mentor, Ella Baker. Ms. Baker was an often behind the scenes powerhouse who advocated for participatory democracy that was truly by and for the people. She lived by the principle that Strong People Do Not Need Strong Leaders. She was also a fierce advocate for young people and the power that they could exert to change the world.
So as we reach that time of year where we all reflect on the life of Dr. King, I call on the spirit of Ella Baker who taught us that the movement did not and does not live and die by a single individual, no matter how great. Rather, it is an ongoing movement that requires all of us to participate as courageous foot soldiers and requires all of us to commit our lives to freedom. As Ms. Reagon Johnson perfectly captured in the powerful chorus of Ella’s Song:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest;
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.