How to honor Martin Luther King Jr. in the post-Trump age

January 14, 2021

By Jonathan Capehart
Opinion writer

Last year, I was invited to give the keynote address at a celebration of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark. Judging by the reaction of the congregation, there is righteous anger and pain over what is happening in our country under President Trump.

Below are the remarks I delivered. As you read them, if you imagine an “Amen!” was said, it most likely happened, for the gathered seemed eager to hear not just a celebration of King but also a call to reclaim the dream for a nation that has lost its way.

“This weekend, the weekend we celebrate the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is the perfect weekend to take stock of where we are and who we are. As a nation and as a people. Both are in trouble. And it’s going to take, in the words of legendary Rep. John Lewis, “good trouble, necessary trouble,” to get us back on track.

“The one nice thing I can say about President Trump is that he has opened our eyes to just how fragile our Constitution and our democracy are.

“Trump is a daily civics lesson in the fragility of our founding document. See, what we now understand is that the power of the Constitution doesn’t just lie in its words and the ideals and aspirations they represent. It also resides in the reverence of them by the 44 men who have sworn to protect it as president of the United States. President Trump, the 45th president of the United States, is not among them.

“No matter the party — whether Republican President George W. Bush or his successor, Democratic President Barack Obama — once they walked into the Oval Office, their personal interests took a back seat to the interests and well-being of the nation. Preservation of the moral authority of the presidency came first. Upholding the rule of law and the fundamental tenets of democracy came first, if only to serve as a model for other nations or as a beacon of hope for those in nations where liberty and justice are in short supply.

“That’s not to say that ours is a perfect nation. It isn’t. Nor was it before Trump came into office. Ours is a nation that struggles, even in good times, to live up to its ideals. And the King holiday serves as an annual reminder of the power of people, regular people, to keep things on track, to do powerful things.

“Actually, let me put a finer point on it: Regular, churchgoing people.

“What sometimes gets lost in the celebration of Dr. King is the role of the black church that forged him and the countless unacclaimed foot soldiers in the battle for freedom, equality and civil rights. The rights that we enjoy today were won by people who were by no means wealthy. But they were rich in spirit and conviction and determination. And they honed their calls for freedom in the sanctuaries of black churches around the country, especially throughout the Jim Crow South.

“Through the marches and sit-ins and boycotts they organized, Dr. King and other leaders of the civil rights movement held up a mirror to the nation to show Americans how the ideal of America didn’t live up to the reality facing their fellow Americans.

“Their every action asked the question: “How can you pledge allegiance to ‘one nation under God with liberty and justice for all’ when your fellow citizens are being denied the right to vote and maimed and murdered for even trying?”

“By literally putting their bodies on the line for freedom, the voices of the oppressed were heard in the halls of power by those who could move the machinery of power to pass the laws that made it possible for us to be able to live out the stirring, aspirational words of our Constitution.

“With the election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, how could we not think that progress was continuing its forward march? And, yet, three years into the Trump presidency, we have watched Obama’s successor not only try to dismantle his every accomplishment, but also reverse the rights won by the King generation nearly six decades earlier.

“Let me talk for a moment to the young people here today or watching online. Many of the giants of the King generation are still alive. We think of them as superheroes today, but they were regular folks who did extraordinary things.

“I’ve interviewed Minniejean Brown-Trickey, who was one of the Little Rock Nine who integrated Central High School in 1957.

“Clarence Jones, who was Dr. King’s personal lawyer, the man who in 1963 smuggled out the scraps of paper that became “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” has become a dear friend.

“I’ve walked with John Lewis three times across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama. It was at the foot of that bridge in 1965 where a young John Lewis got his skull cracked open by law enforcement.

“All of those heroes are dismayed by what is happening today. By the ease with which the country stopped progress. By the decimation of their hard work. Young people, you are surrounded by countless people who lived through those years, who saw the nation get better — not perfect — better.

“These are people to whom you are related. And to whom you are not. But you are linked to them, we are all linked to them, through an incredible lineage. And that with lineage comes responsibility — for all of us.

“The time we’re in right now in Trump’s America is an all-hands-on-deck moment.

“Anyone who cares about our country, our communities, our role in the world, what it means to be American, must be part of the effort to take our country back. If we’ve learned anything in the Trump era, it is that our rights, our freedom, our democracy require everyone to do their part to maintain them, to protect them.

“My apologies for what might seem like an overly partisan message. But some things rise above partisanship when you’re talking about the moral fiber and character of our country. Like I said, and as we all know, we are not a perfect country.

“But we can’t afford to NOT tap into the bravery of our lineage and our heritage. To hold up the mirror, once again, to the nation. This time, to show Americans how the reality facing their fellow Americans does not live up to the ideals that were taking hold just three years ago, does not live up to the promise of an America that Dr. King and others worked so hard to create, no longer lives up to the hopes and dreams of people around the world who once looked to the United States as a beacon in a sea of uncertainty and want.

“To honor Dr. King this year is to recommit to the fight for America, where freedom rings “from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city” where we are “free at last” from a president and an administration that ignore the rule of law, from a president and an administration that disrespect its people and belittle the oppressed.

“King and our ancestors, living and dead, need to see that we are willing to fight to save all that they did, as hard as they worked and pushed to create something worth saving.