It’s fitting that President Obama’s inauguration arrives on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, because there would be no Obama without King.
We often say such things in the trite, dutiful manner in which people speak about historical figures, but in this case it happens to be true.
Obama owes King a debt of gratitude for paving the way for all Americans to vote. Obama also owes thanks to Philadelphia, because we exercised that right in staggering numbers.
I look at our city as our president is preparing to be sworn in for a second term, and the future seems close enough to touch. It’s a future that was carved out by Philadelphians who voted for Obama in such numbers that in 59 Philadelphia voting divisions, Republican Mitt Romney received 0 votes.
Since Philadelphia was the key to delivering the crucial state of Pennsylvania to the president, one might say that our city has shaped America’s future.
It’s a future that I hope will be better for my children because of Philadelphia’s resolve.
That’s what the future’s all about, after all — our children. But as a parent it’s easy to get caught up in the future and forget about the past. I don’t want to forget, though.
That’s why I decided to take a look at the life and work of the man who is the proverbial parent of the movement that made Obama possible. I decided to take a look back at Martin Luther King, Jr.
Looking to the past
For people like me who were born towards the end of King’s life, King is an ethereal figure; a ghost hovering somewhere above a past we can’t remember.
He is the man who had a dream that lives on in black-and-white footage. He is a historical figure who we respect, although we don’t quite know why. He is a lesson to memorize, a figure to revere, a piece of a segregated past that we never experienced for ourselves.
I don’t want to remember him that way, so one night this week, after my family had gone to bed, I sat alone at my kitchen table and read “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
King wrote that letter to a group of clergymen who had criticized him for marching to protest the treatment of African Americans in Birmingham, Ala. King and his followers were jailed after the march. It was then that he wrote the letter.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote in one of the more familiar passages. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.
“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”
As I read King’s brilliant argument for direct action against injustice, I saw more than a man who lives only in old footage. I saw a father fighting for a better future for his children. I saw a man who was not willing to wait for change. I saw myself.
King wrote of seeing “the vast majority of … twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.” When I read that I saw Philadelphia, a place where 28 percent of the population — many of them African American — live in poverty while surrounded by wealth.
King went on to write of tears welling up in his six-year-old daughter’s eyes as he explained to her that she couldn’t go to the amusement park because of segregation. He wrote of the concerns that any husband and father would have for his family, and at that moment I saw King for who he truly was — a man.
I won’t be volunteering on King Day. Instead, I’ll be watching the inauguration and reflecting quietly on the man who helped to make it possible.
I’ll think of the man who sat in jail rather than sit in oppression; who took blows rather than taking vengeance; who preached love instead of practicing hate; who gave his life so I could write of his memory.
I will think of King’s sacrifice, and on Monday, when King Day and the inauguration are upon us, I’ll think of the blacks who couldn’t vote in Birmingham.
I’ll think of the blacks who voted in record numbers in Philadelphia.
I’ll think of how far we still have to go, and I’ll look to the heavens and thank God.
Then, I’ll thank a long-gone father named Martin Luther King Jr., who fought to make things better for his children.