In his 1967 address, “Beyond Vietnam, A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said:
We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.
King spoke during a time of tremendous political uncertainty. On the cusp of an election that would decide the fate of poor and working-class communities. When Americans’ declining trust in the very institutions created to protect them caused rifts at every level of government. A time of zealots using violence and intimidation to deny Constitutional rights to speech, assembly and equal rights under law. During an era where domestic terrorists repeatedly violated the fragile sense of peace in churches and schools once thought to be sanctuaries for the most vulnerable. King denounced our collective addiction to violence here at home and abroad. The past is always prologue in the United States.
Three years ago, my family and I made a pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama to participate in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Bloody Sunday march. We were flanked by two older gentlemen as we waited at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Both veterans. Both foot soldiers who bore the physical scars of participating in the original march. Both had been run out of Selma simply for asserting their rights as American citizens.
Together, we stood waiting to hear then-President Barack Obama speak. One of the foot soldiers standing beside me began to weep, overcome by the realization of a day that he never thought possible.
There, on that bridge, with its pavement soaked in the tears of children and stained by the blood of martyrs, we were reminded of America’s infinite promise. As organizers were developing a plan of action for the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, there were naysayers who asked, “What difference is that going to make anyway? Why disturb others, just to prove a point? Bringing it up just makes the problems worse.”
Undeterred by the violence and threats of harm that befell them, King led more than 2,000 people to complete the march from Selma to Montgomery just two weeks after the bloody clash.
The organizers and those who participated in the marches were guided by the belief that no act of civil disobedience is ever wasted. Indeed civil disobedience is at the very core of this country’s fight for independence.
Many people now claim to have marched with King and believe in the work that he and countless unnamed activists were committed to. The reality, however, is that during his life, King was viewed as a troublemaker who jeopardized the lives of others just to prove a selfish point. It was only at his death that some began to realize the profundity of fighting for a vision of freedom that includes all of us. Whether born here or brought here. It is often in those moments of discomfort that our strength and resolve are renewed.
Reclaiming the fierce urgency of now is about acknowledging that, in spite of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision that was meant to ensure all children could learn together, America’s schools are more segregated than ever before. With a widening achievement gap between students based on the markers of race, ethnicity and class. Indeed, nearly 80% of students in America’s public schools come from homes where poverty is a very real and persistent factor. In far too many states, it’s zip code – not aptitude – that determines the education our children receive.
Today, young people across this country are fighting to end violence. Communities are organizing to demand that the names of Stephon Clark, Draylen Mason and Courtlin Arrington be etched into our collective consciousness. Families are fighting through their pain to denounce tragedies at Virginia Tech, Pulse, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, Parkland, Aurora and Mother Emanuel. And, just as importantly, reminding us of the everyday acts of gun violence that don’t make the headlines or elicit the same level of public outrage. Young warriors and seasoned activists are coming together to raise their voices in a policy space that too often profits from their silence.
As we reflect on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of King, we hear the words of his 9-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda Renee King, who said at the recent March For Our Lives: “My grandfather had a dream that his four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream that enough is enough.”
Enough is enough. Now is the time to reclaim the fierce urgency of now.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.