By Michael Christianson
When the AFRO asked me to draw upon my decades long association with former Congressman Elijah Cummings and speak to the relevance of Dr. King’s message and mission in our own time, it is fair to say that my feelings were mixed. Nevertheless, in our ongoing struggle for the soul of our democracy, each citizen has a duty to contribute whatever we can.
As a grateful nation, we must never forget the words of Dr. King’s stirring 1957 speech, Give Us the Ballot, words that reflected how deeply Dr. King believed in our ability, as voting citizens, to transform our lives and those of generations of Americans yet to be born.
So, even as we serve our communities in our daily lives, we also honor Dr. King’s legacy by our active engagement in the democratic process that strengthened his faith.
I make this (perhaps self-evident) observation because, as in 1957 and 1965, we once again are living in a deeply troubling time for our nation, a time that could weaken our confidence in democracy and our ability as citizens to chart our own destiny.
I offer these thoughts on January 6, one year to the day after the attempted insurrection at our nation’s Capitol. Even more troubling, the anti-democratic effort to suppress our power as citizens continues – both in Washington and in states throughout our country.
In this vein, I commend to each of you President Biden and Vice-President Harris’ assessment this morning of the challenges that Americans of every political persuasion must now confront and overcome.
As President Biden reminded all of us: “We’re living at an inflection point in history, both at home and abroad.”
At this critical moment, those of us who were young in Dr. King’s time know full well that we cannot leave the defense of our democracy to our elected leaders alone. We must continue to raise our voices and exercise our voting power if we are to avoid autocracy and transform Dr. King’s vision of human rights into civil rights protected by law.
Yet, Dr. King also taught us that, even as we engage in this historic struggle, we must not allow the intransigence, vitriol and deception being advanced by anti-democratic forces today to seduce us into hating those who use hatred of others as a political strategy.
As Dr. King often counseled his congregation at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, only by loving (although not liking) our political enemies can we ultimately prevail. Only by advancing our shared humanity – despite the hatred and inhumane actions of our opponents – can we preserve our democracy and sustain our nation as a force for good in the world (See, Dr. King: Loving Your Enemies: 1957).
This, I believe, is how we can both honor Dr. King’s legacy and prevail in the struggle for democracy in our time.
Michael Christianson served as an attorney, strategist and writer on the staff of former Congressman Elijah Cummings for 24 years.
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