Every year when Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes around, I get an unsettled feeling in my gut, like I’m sitting on a rollercoaster anticipating the dips, turns and loops that I know only too well. I can replay in my mind what is soon to come — the attempts to contort Dr. King’s legacy and message into something that suits agendas he opposed. Yes, he advocated nonviolence, but his work was anything but safe. His vocation was as dangerous as it gets: telling the truth about injustice and acting on that truth. As the day approaches, I turn all this over in my mind.
I’ve led a relatively safe life — as safe as it gets for a Black person in America, anyway. Dr. King helped make it possible. I grew up in Memphis, where he spent his final days fighting for the rights of sanitation workers, and that shaped my consciousness. Twenty years ago this spring, I graduated from law school with the goal of advancing the cause of justice. But I got a job that paid me well enough to put a dent in my student loans. After a year or so, I became a public defender, but family relocations and motherhood put me back in law firms before ushering me out of the job market altogether. Now I’m a writer.
Aside from a couple of staid demonstrations over the past several years, I haven’t been involved in any significant protests. I’ve never put my job on the line, been jailed, or even suffered notable discomfort for a greater cause. That’s not to say I haven’t spoken out against injustice or lent my time and abilities to lifting up the oppressed. It’s just that I haven’t made any great personal sacrifices in that regard. In an otherwise comfortable life, it’s an uncomfortable thought.
And yet, this is where my unease begins to give way to inspiration. Dr. King’s legacy reminds me that I should be unsettled, and even that, while necessary, is insufficient. He’s shown us that it isn’t enough to observe and note wrongdoing. We must act.
What can any of us do in the face of overwhelming inequality that seems to grow more crushing with each passing day? How can we join him and the fold of ancestors in the cosmic task of bending the arc of history toward justice? Dr. King showed us the way: “If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
I first encountered this quote on the colorful walls of an elementary school, naively lettered by a child. Accompanying it was an illustrated parade of birds and other creatures of all sizes fluttering and striding and creeping into the horizon. Though each went along in its own way, their collective advance unified them. It stopped me in my tracks. If I were in that number, which creature would I be?
Dr. King flew. His example emboldens me, in whatever way I’m able, to tell the truth and act on it — even and especially if it makes me uncomfortable.
Essayist and memoirist Leta McCollough Seletzky is a National Endowment for the Arts 2022 Creative Writing Fellow. Her father-daughter memoir, The Kneeling Man, is forthcoming from Counterpoint Press.
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