This day has always felt almost sacred to me. I've always been impressed with the Civil Rights movement, with how they stayed civilized, even when the agents of civilization (the police, the sheriff, the white establishment) seemed mad and crazed with rage. I've always been impressed with how they held fast to their beliefs, even when they flew in the face of what society might teach us. I've always been impressed with the changes that they wrought.
My younger self, that impatient nineteen year old, was frustrated with how long social change took. My older self looks back at how far we've come and how quickly, and I suck in my breath and pray for continued success. A black president: my nineteen year old self would not have believed it would have happened in her lifetime. But it has.
At one point, having this day declared a holiday seemed an impossibility. I remember the first year the nation observed it. It was a much more quiet holiday in the 80's than it is today. And as I said, now, a black president. Social change often seems slow, downright glacial--and then, we zoom ahead.
May we always be moving ahead. History also shows us that we can slip behind.
But let me also remember King's approach to history. In 1996, when I was feeling despair, my friend Shannon gave me my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm fairly sure he said this the night before he was killed, or perhaps it was the night before the night he was killed.
Today is a day to dream big and bold visions. We could change our society. We could make it better, bending towards justice. What would that society look like?
We have to dream that dream before we can achieve it. We have to find the courage to hold tightly to our visions. We have to face down all the fire hoses, both those of our minds which inform us of the impossibility of our dreams and those of our society, that tells us to move more slowly.
But first we have to dream. Dream boldly, today of all days.
And we have to be patient and realistic. We have to realize that the work that we do may not yield results right away--perhaps not in our lifetimes. This episode of On Being featured an interview with John Lewis, an old Civil Rights worker and a member of Congress. He ends the interview this way: "Well, I think about it, but you have to believe there may be setbacks, there may be some disappointments, there may be some interruption. But, again, you have to take the long, hard look. With this belief, it's going to be OK; it's going to work out. If it failed to happen during your lifetime, then maybe, not maybe, but it would happen in somebody's lifetime. But you must do all that you can do while you occupy this space during your time. And sometime I feel that I'm not doing enough to try to inspire another generation of people to find a way to get in the way, to make trouble, good trouble. I just make a little noise."
Today is a good day to think about how to make that noise--and to think about the next generation. History will bend in some direction: how can we help it arc towards justice?
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