Ten years ago I lost myself in the words and deeds of Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Shuttlesworth, Hosea Williams, Diane Nash and so many others. Their faith, strength, wisdom and courage showed me a moral brilliance to which I somehow let myself aspire. Studying their work inspired me to continue the civil rights movement’s unfinished business by teaching in the still-segregated public schools of the Mississippi Delta. I’ve written several times about my experience there, and I don’t know what to say about it now, except that it gave me a clear sense of just how far we are from the mountaintop.
Ten years on now, my former students are the same age I was when I found Martin Luther King. This year was the first election in which they voted, and tomorrow the White House will become home to an African-American president, an African-American first lady, and two African-American little girls. I don’t know how much closer we are to the mountaintop, but I know it’s more visible.
For as much will be written about MLK Day and the Obama inauguration falling back-to-back, it cannot be overstated what a glorious coincidence it truly is.
The impact of the moment does not seem to be lost on the incoming President – today’s Washington Post reports that Obama’s call for volunteerism on MLK Day (Congress declared the day one of national service in 1994) is being met with an overwhelming response.
While today is a wonderful time for volunteers to affect positive change, it will be important to sustain this spirit going forward. Pres.-Elect Obama emphasized public service on the campaign trail and in a recent op-ed, Alan Khazei and David Gergen write that “the case for expanding national service is compelling.” Meeting needs, creating jobs and continuing positive work are among the benefits they see. It seems well worth pursuing.
People of faith have long exercised their beliefs through putting feet to pavement and helping their communities. We should welcome this call to service as an extension of what we’re already doing, reinforcements and co-laborers. Today, and going forward, we can answer Dr. King’s call by building community with our neighbors and getting our hands dirty.
Irshad Manji, the internationally best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in her Faith, and Dalia Mogahed, Senior Analyst and Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, discuss the system of leadership in Islam with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. This clip is from earlier this month at The Aspen Institute in Colorado.