The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would turn 85 this year, although he seems preserved in amber, the martyred 39-year-old civil rights pioneer whose legacy stretches well beyond his short life. Many of King’s battles, including the Montgomery bus boycott and passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, feel like ancient history, the last vestiges of the Jim Crow South. Other battles are resonant still, including the Poor People’s March (the challenge of income inequality) and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was gutted by a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision last year.
King’s MO bears repeating: Speak the truth, fight for justice and serve others.
To speak the truth, especially truth to power, poses a threat to the Northwest’s culture of nice. But if “nice” is artifice rather than courtesy, it kindles a slow burn. So speak up. If we know that public entities are in need of a kick, kick we should. There’s nothing wrong with “trust but verify,” and to ask tough questions of those in public life. Transparent, accountable government is the best antidote to passive-aggressive stewing.
Crusading for justice is a constant, whether advancing stronger DUI laws or battling human trafficking in Snohomish County. Justice also finds expression in dark corners where the impulse is to turn away. Justice for those living with mental illness is expanded treatment, not the county jail. Justice for children in foster care is better services and an opportunity to attend college. Justice for the long-term unemployed is meaningful work.
To serve others is King’s value that aligns most comfortably with Northwesterners. National and community service are part of the Northwest DNA. It began at the turn of the 20th century as new settlers to Puget Sound joined voluntary associations, from the Everett Women’s Book Club to fraternal groups like the Knights of Columbus.
Eighty years ago, the first Civilian Conservation Corps crews reinforced that service ethic. Service took other forms in the 1960s, including the Peace Corps and its domestic counterpart, Volunteers in Service to America. And then came AmeriCorps, the most comprehensive effort yet to inculcate the value of helping others.
Locals are enterprising, coaching teams, mentoring kids through the Boys &Girls Club, and serving as Washington Reading Corps volunteers. The county lists volunteer opportunities that run the gamut from WSU Beach Watchers to volunteer guardian ad litems (court-appointed advocates for neglected or abused children.)
All manageable goals. It’s when we resolve to speak the truth, fight for justice and serve others that we breathe life into King’s legacy.