By Justin Valas

Coming together to celebrate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr gives us all an important reminder of the call to work to advance the cause of equality, struggle towards civil and human rights, and stand for the dignity of all. We are reminded that the rights of the oppressed and disenfranchised are not freely given, and that America still has much work ahead. Many of us have dedicated sleepless nights and tireless months in advancing the DREAM Act in 2010 as a step towards achieving the beloved community. You can understand our shock when Senator Hagan, fresh off of her last-minute squashing of the dreams of 2 million youth (and her reluctance to make a statement about her decision), asked to be present at an event in Durham celebrating the legacy of Dr. King.

The Senator must have sensed the need for her to shore up her civil rights credentials, beyond just an old photo op and her open opposition to the North Carolina Conference of the NAACP. In her speech, she delivered flowery praise on the importance of those acts of non-violent, civil disobedience that propelled civil rights legislation, piece by piece. She rightly praised the Durham sit-ins, and the role that North Carolina played in propelling the cause of justice forward. She urged us to heed Dr. King’s call and to “renew our commitment to the freedoms and values that define our nation.” Notably absent was any mention of her role as a roadblock to a more just society, and her refusal to meet with youth engaged in the same tactics.

Dr. King’s words, pasted below, rung in my ears as I listened to the paternalistic voice that had told us “I understand, but I cannot support you. I support comprehensive immigration reform.”

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Letter from a Birmingham Jail

She had refused to meet with us, refused to hear our voices, voted to keep us in the shadows saying ‘now is not the time for the DREAM Act.’ As Dr. King said, “[p]erhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.'” The keynote speaker at the event candidly spoke on this, when he admitted to becoming tired of the song “We Shall Overcome.” “Someday…. When is ‘someday?’ We’ve been singing this song for 50-some years, and it still isn’t ‘someday,'” he said. Unfortunately, one of the obstacles to making our ‘someday’ become ‘today,’ Senator Hagan, had left the event well before the keynote speaker even took the stage.

Perhaps it was her conscience that compelled her exit. Maybe it was her conscience that lead her to speak to us, in passing, at the event. Before the start of the event, she told some of our members that she plans to focus on immigration, and that “we should meet.”

The words from Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” have not lost their relevance today. While some of the faces and names from King’s day have changed, the realities of injustice remain.

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