by Ace Parsi
There aren't many traditions that I look back fondly on from my days as an undergrad at Penn State. One I do though is the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service. If you did some type of service that day, you could take the day off class. There would also be discussions across the campus and end with a keynote speaker who would better frame the day. When I was a freshmen, the keynote speaker was the late Yolanda King, Dr. King’s oldest child. During that speech, she said something that stuck with me. She said that she appreciated the idea that MLK Day would be a "day on," rather than a "day off."
That was the spirit through which a few of us met on Monday night to discuss how Dr. King's words applied to our lives today. We began the night with a long discussion of Dr. King’s unfortunately prophetic sermon, "I've Been to the Mountaintop." It was a profound, yet eerie speech where King essentially prophesies his own death. Yet, the speech is so profound because it does and teaches us so much more. In reading his speech, one can find very clear parallels to situations we face today. In order to encourage unity against a barrage of media and opposing forces the civil rights and anti-poverty movement was facing, King highlights that Pharaoh’s greatest weapon against the Jews was sowing seeds of disunity. Similarly, the group of us discussed that as progressives, we face our own challenges with disunity as each of us focuses on our own narrow issues and overlooks the common bond we must all share in our pursuit for a more just world.
In reflecting on the challenges King and the movement faced in his time and the challenges we still face today, our group discussed whether we believed King when he said that, "The arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice." We discussed that while we had achieved great gains with regards to voting rights, women's rights, and the fight against racism, we had also as a society fallen deeper and deeper into the deep waters of materialism. As young people of faith, what did it all mean for us moving forward? The answer that seemed to satisfy us in part is that like King our souls were not to be made content through some future victory or land of milk and honey. Instead, we would be fulfilled by the present effort. Like King, it's the effort that brings us closer to our Creator.
Over the course of the night, we only got through two speeches: "I've Been to the Mountaintop" and "Transformed Nonconformist" (PDF). Yet, the night served the most ideal purpose. It gave us a chance to reconnect, reenergize, and refocus. Traditions like this are really important. Now, I'm just looking forward to the next MLK Day that we can make a "day on" of.
Ace Parsi is a progressive Christian and education advocate in Washington DC.