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LETTER: Honoring Dr. King's Legacy

Published: Monday, January 20, 2014

Updated: Monday, January 20, 2014 20:01

To the editor:

Each year since 1983, on the third Monday in January, partisans from both sides of the aisle in all 50 states come together to recognize the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Through his nonviolent opposition to Southern segregation, King became a symbol of justice and pride for all Americans — the physical embodiment of those lofty ideals put forward in the Declaration of Independence two centuries prior, the triumph of unity over division, equality over inequality, the consummation of our national ideals; or so the Ken Burns school of history would have it.

In sanitizing the past, we risk forgetting that King’s leadership in the Civil Rights Movement proved extremely divisive at the time. Many in the South saw equality between the races as social heresy and desegregation as a federal imposition that unduly denied states their constitutional sovereignty in political matters. Moderate Northerners, too, criticized King’s tactics as extreme and politically inexpedient.

While celebrating Martin Luther King the man is an important and worthwhile gesture, another crucial imperative of honoring King’s legacy is grappling with those historical forces against which he struggled. We cannot dismiss or downplay opposition to civil rights as an unfortunate attitude of the past.

The fear of change and intolerance of the unknown that bolstered Bull Connor’s actions in Birmingham have a corollary in our own time. Especially here in Utah, where cultural homogeneity and reverence for tradition often stifles alternative viewpoints and stymies attempts at progressive action, we want to view all change as corrosive to the social foundations of our society.

The battle over gay marriage in this state has thrown such tendencies into stark relief. By policing the boundaries of “traditional” marriage and denying a group of people the legal rights guaranteed their heterosexual counterparts, the state continues to perpetuate second-class citizenship; we have merely substituted sexuality for race.

In 1963 from a jail cell in Birmingham, King wrote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

When we pretend the past has no bearing on our present political and social struggles, that our concerns have no historical antecedents, we ignore one of King’s most compelling insights: Denying political rights to any one segment of society saps the moral foundation of the entire polity. By acknowledging the common humanity that unites us all, we can avoid finding ourselves on the wrong side of history.

– Jacob Sheetz-Willard

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