Martin Luther King Jr. in 2021

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Last week, I spoke with someone who said the Jan. 6 events in Washington, D.C., reminded her of the shock of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. It seems to be true for others as well. As we honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and imagine what he, a keen student of humanity and of systems, would recommend for this historic moment, I suggest the following:

Kit Miller

1. Stop to acknowledge shock, grief or despair. Don’t give in to numbness. It can lead to inaction or keep us stuck in habitual responses, such as focusing responsibility primarily on individuals rather than the underlying conditions responsible. As Father Richard Rohr says, what does not get transformed, gets transferred. Blaming individuals lets the systems off the hook. It could also strengthen white nationalism. The research and accounts I have read say that scapegoating white nationalists strengthens white nationalism. We need to root this out, not broadcast the seeds.

2. This is a moment to undertake a thorough reckoning, such as the truth and reconciliation process that Fania Davis, director of the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, recommends. This process needs to include a revision of how U.S. history is taught in schools nationally, to correct the misinformation and omissions that set the stage for the next generation of hatred and racism to flourish.

3. Last, we must seek meaningful economic reform. In “The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being,” U.K. authors Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett cite dozens of studies regarding outcomes of income inequality. Mental health, social cohesion, physical health, children’s well-being from every social class, and the environment all worsen when income inequality grows. Currently income inequality is at historically high levels in the United States, akin to the 1890s’ Gilded Age. (The Gilded Age was a time of rapid economic growth in the nation, with the expansion of industrialization, as well as a period of abject poverty and inequality.)

Crisis represents the necessity and opportunity to rebuild. We have been innovating mightily since last March. We can continue to innovate right now before things harden again to take this political and historic moment to correct historic wrongs and do what’s right. Delaying this overdue reckoning is poisoning our country as well as people around the world harmed by U.S. militarism. King spoke to these three things repeatedly, calling it the Triple Threat: the evil of racism, the evil of poverty, and the evil of war. 

If King were alive today, he would be acknowledging and speaking that all reforms need to include attention to climate change and the harm being done to our one and only planet. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”  

Perhaps, before the memory of seeing the Capitol building overrun fades, we will finally listen. 

Kit Miller is director of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, a nonprofit that equips people to use nonviolence to create a sustainable and just world for all. With community partners, it focuses on nonviolence education, sustainability and environmental conservation, and the promotion of racial justice.

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