Let us honor Dr. King's legacy with our deeds


Published: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 2:10 p.m.
During January, one of the most popular themes for columnists and public speakers is "what would Martin Luther King do if he were alive?"
I wrote a column a few years ago trying to answer that question. I won't attempt it this year. Instead, I'm taking my cue from comments by Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, in the Jan. 9 issue of Time magazine.
I quote Edelman, one of King's close associates, at length because paraphrasing would do her an injustice.
"Everybody is looking for Dr. King to come back," Edelman writes. "The issues were very clear-cut back then. Now it's about technical matters, monitoring government agencies. And how do you relate the complex relationships of injustices and basic wrongs and needy children with the legalese and legislation needed to right them to the general public?
"Dr. King's vision was clear; the voice was clear. That clarity was a great loss. While we're all looking for the heroes of the '60s, a strong foundation had been laid. It spawned the next phase in taking our nation where it needs to get. Now the task is to honor them in our deeds.
"His words are still the framework. Where is the voice today? We're it. We've got to make the leaders hear it. He did his part. Now we need to do ours."
Indeed, King did his part. What do we, African Americans, need to do?
Before we can effectively do anything, we need to face the reality that we are out of favor in the United States. We are feared more than we are respected. We are dismissed more than we are invited to participate.
Much of the landmark legislation, such as affirmative action and school desegregation, that gave us relief and a modicum of justice has been reversed. In some states - notably Florida, Georgia and Texas - even the right to vote has been jeopardized to a larger or lesser degree.
In short, we are on our own in a hostile world.
As such, we need to dedicate ourselves to a renewed and lasting movement to uplift ourselves, one that will guarantee a viable future for the next generation and the next.
We need to focus on educating our children. I'm talking about more than merely herding our children off to the schoolhouse each day. I'm talking about creating a climate in our homes that is conducive to learning, where learning for its own sake is encouraged.
We need to read to our children when they're young. We need to help them with their homework. If we can't help them, we need to find someone who can. We need to take them to libraries, bookstores and museums. We need to travel with them.
We need to reverse the black-on-black crime pandemic that has trapped us in our own neighborhoods, that has isolated us from the economic and intellectual vitality of our cities at large. Our neighborhoods must become seamless parts of the greater community.
We need to teach our children that while they're trying to get a start in life, instant gratification and conspicuous consumption are crippling liabilities. We need to teach our children to save and to invest, to respect moderation and simplicity.
We need to teach our children the incredible power of courtesy and politeness. Hip-hop culture, especially "gangsta" elements, has turned normality on its head. It has cheapened black life in many ways. It has blurred the line between good and bad.
How did we get to the point where one young black man killing another young black man is admirable? When did our young men begin to think that referring to our young women as "bitches" is acceptable? When did the wisdom of old people become stupid - "old school"?
To honor King's legacy, we must stop the self-destruction.
Bill Maxwell is an associate professor of journalism at Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

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