Learning from M.L.K. Jr. in the 21st century

In his speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live." Those words were prophetic in his own life.

As I write this on his holiday, I think of the relation of our past to our future. A holiday is a symbolic act of remembrance. Yet when it comes to our actions as a society, do we actually carry what we have learned from our past into the future?

It is important to not fix the relevance of someone’s ideas to a particular time, artistic or political movement, as this only limits their relevance.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. said in his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail," "We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people." Perhaps this silence should not be simply equated with silence in an audible sense. Perhaps it should also be equated with the silence of historical memory, the forgetting of the past’s relevance to our present.

Today, we live with necessary cynicism. Most of us have accepted, whether willingly or not, that the "war on terror" is out of our hands. There is a gap between what people think our country should be doing, and what the government of our country is doing. When nations use force in the name of creating peace, we are left with an oxymoronic, Orwellian reality of soldiers that are "peacekeepers," and the conflict between loyalty to our nation’s policies and our ethical beliefs. For those of us with loved ones in the military, that conflict is heightened.

Recently, Prince Harry wore a swastika armband to a costume party, creating uproar. The timing was made worse by the fact that Jan. 27 marks the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex. Some argue that people took his costume too seriously, given that the war was years ago. I thought it was in terrible taste. War attire would have been pushing it enough as a "costume," but the presence of the swastika was over the line, as the symbol does not merely represent a war, but genocide. The fact that historical memory is tied to symbols is something we see battled over in the United States as well. When people wish to fly the Confederate flag, they fly it in the face of its symbolism for many people of slavery and oppression.

Without holidays, books and visual reminders, where is the emotional memory stored in our culture? Does Prince Harry’s act reflect that for some empathy is only in proximity to suffering? When we relegate the problems of history to their particular historical moments, we forget how the similar issues can manifest themselves again in the present. The harsh reality of war, and more importantly the fact that the human race has still not found an alternative, comes home when one’s own family members are abroad to fight in it.

If we walked around fully aware of the weight of history, no one would get anything accomplished out of pure depression. Even in the present, while elsewhere life is disrupted from the tsunamis, we donate money and read the news but must inevitably go about our days.

Yet, there seems to be a failure to carry the relevance of our knowledge with us. While I do believe it is necessary to move forward, it is nonetheless necessary to remember the relevance of the past. Otherwise, as the saying goes, we are doomed to repeat it. When civil rights are limited, history is forgotten. When wars are perpetrated on faulty evidence, we return to a place of moral ambiguity and suffering, a place we should have left behind in Vietnam.

The past is remembered best not as a recollection of events but as insight into our future. Moreover, such insight should seek change for the better, no matter how bad things are. As another Martin Luther seeking change centuries ago once said, "Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree."

Carolyn Duncan can be reached at [email protected].