Charles B. Rangel
Charles B. Rangel

Who would have imagined forty years ago that there would be a national holiday to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? God has made it impossible for us to perceive whether our actions will make history until long after we take them.

As a young politician, I decided to travel from New York to Selma, Alabama, and march 54 miles to Montgomery in support of the Voting Rights Act. I was not excited by the prospect. In fact, I cursed every step, wondering why in the world I was doing this with no cameras, no reporters, and bad feet. But I couldn't turn back as sharecroppers and young people walked together in the rain and darkness with a group of white Southern guardsmen allegedly there to "protect" us.

It was only long after the event that I fully recognized the power of Dr. King. He inspired thousands of people to believe they could make a difference even if they were poor and cold and wet, walking in the dark. We now have 39 African-Americans serving in Congress and those marchers made it possible.

We need that kind of action again today, when America faces so much suffering. A select few are prospering, but many hardworking Americans are out of work for the first time in their lives. There are 9 million Americans who can not find jobs. More than 43 million Americans have no health insurance. "No Child Left Behind" is a travesty, as many local school districts are laying off teachers and increasing class sizes. There is nearly as high a poverty rate now as there was when Martin Luther King was killed. And civil rights are being curtailed in the name of patriotism.

I know that many think it is better to honor Dr. King by talking about all the progress we have made since he was taken from us. Certainly, progress in civil rights and race relations has been made thanks to him and the millions he inspired. But those who remember Dr. King as just a civil rights leader miss much of the point of his teachings and his life.

Dr. King was an advocate for justice and peace. And, most important to remember, he was an advocate for expressing one's conscience – for speaking out against injustice even when it is unpopular to do so.

If Dr. King were alive today, can anyone seriously imagine that he would support the pre-emptive war with Iraq? Does anyone believe that he would support a system where minorities from inner cities and poor white folks from small rural towns shoulder almost all of the burden of fighting? Can anyone truly think that he would stand by and silently watch massive amounts of the nation's wealth go to big corporations to "re-build" Iraq and to large tax cuts for the rich instead of addressing massive suffering and loss of opportunity in America?

Dr. King is no longer with us, but his words and example are. I recommend the speech he delivered at New York's Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, when he called on people to break the silence on the Vietnam War. He stated, "(M)en do not easily assume the task of opposing their government's policy, especially in time of war." Today, it is difficult to challenge a president after the attack of Sept. 11, 2001. No one wants to be perceived as being unpatriotic= No one wants to be perceived as if they are not supporting our brave men and women that are stationed in the Middle East.

But, as Dr. King also pointed out, "a time comes when silence is betrayal." Whether we are concerned about the injustices here in America or the perpetuation of violence abroad, we have an obligation as Americans and as human beings to do what we can to stop it. "We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest."

Sometimes, the size of our country and the power of those in charge seem so overwhelming that we question whether our voices will be heard. But silence is not the answer. We must remember that we cannot know the impact of our actions at the time we take them. At some time in the future, somebody may just ask you, "When your country was fighting preemptive wars and turning its back on its working people, did you say anything? Did you do anything? Did you demonstrate? Did you vote?"

I fear that many of our current leaders will pay homage to Martin Luther King the person, while dismissing what he believed, fought for, and died for. But maybe, years from now, we will be honoring a man or woman who stands up today and, despite public opinion and polls and criticisms, declares that the Iraq War is wrong and that America must restore justice and democracy at home before it can bring it to the world.

Charles B. Rangel is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and has represented the Fifteenth District of New York for 33 years. American Progress initially published this piece on January 16, 2004.

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