Perhaps, if Martin Luther King Jr. were to write a letter on the holiday set aside for him, it might go something like this, albeit more eloquent:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Forty-seven years ago, in August 1963, while imprisoned in the Birmingham jail for nonviolent demonstrations against segregation, I wrote a letter in longhand to eight religious leaders. They had criticized me for moving too fast on issues that didn’t concern me and saw me as an outsider from Atlanta, Georgia.
I reminded my religious colleagues that “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. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
Today, as I look about, I am bewildered by the many political leaders who assemble each year to commemorate me. They almost seem to make me a saint. It is as if many of them never heard my message. These leaders forget about my unrelenting challenge to this country’s economic structures that leave so many people in severe poverty. Do they remember I was assassinated while trying to help low-paid Memphis sanitation workers raise their salaries? Do they not hear my lament about the racial barriers in education?
Instead, they focus only on the “safe” part of my life, not my voice lifted in prophecy against war and poverty, for which I was severely chastised. How can they not answer those contradictions?
They ignore the many times I called America to task for using war against perceived national security threats. Then it was Vietnam. Now it is Iraq and Afghanistan.
When will Americans heed the vision of Isaiah to transform our weaponry of death into tools for peace to end world poverty?
Terrorists build off social inequality, lack of education, poverty and a perverted view of the United States, which they perceive as materialistic and militarily aggressive. War, the killing of innocent people and destroying social infrastructures provide them with recruiting opportunities they would not otherwise have.
What if the United States had used the $1.3 trillion it has spent on the wars to build schools and hospitals in foreign lands? Or to start farming co-ops? Those would have yielded more success in our common struggle against terrorism. And the world economy would have been better off.
Instead, 7,000 troops have died – not to mention the tens of thousands now disabled and a hundred thousand or more non-combatant men, women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I also lament the attacks on immigrants in our country, people who have migrated here to support their families. Perpetrating discrimination against them because of their national origin or religion will come to justify discrimination against others, an alarming regression in the hard-fought victories we won so painstakingly.
As Leviticus reminds us, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”
When you get together on my birthday holiday, don’t just celebrate the strides we have made – for many more remain to you. Organize to end injustice, anywhere and everywhere.
JAMES HARRINGTON is the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and an adjunct University of Texas law professor.