Arab Americans Internalize Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Message of Hope, Action

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By: Heba Mohammad/Arab America Contributing Writer

On Monday we commemorated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday honoring the life and legacy of the civil rights leader. I found myself welcoming the positivity of the day as folks circulated Dr. King’s words to communicate their support for his principles.

Among the greatest sources of this hope, for me personally, was an opinion piece written by author, advocate, and lawyer, Michelle Alexander. In this piece, Time to Break the Silence on Palestine, Alexander explains that Dr. King’s legacy compels us to be brave in the face of injustice, no matter the potential costs to us personally or to our movements. She calls on all people who want to live by King’s example to apply that principle to the plight of Palestinians and openly support an end to the injustices committed by Israel.

It’s an argument that resonated with many, including me. As it would turn out, though, Alexander’s piece, published two days shy of MLK Day, would be one of the few tributes to King that writes about his legacy as a call to action.

I observed folks share their favorite MLK quote, discuss the (extremely important) whitewashing of his legacy, and pay homage through service work.  What was notably absent from most commendations, however, was a commitment to action to stamp out the root causes of injustice. While the fight Dr. King fought & died for isn’t exactly the same today, its various manifestations have taken root in communities all over the world, each one in need of additional allies and action-takers.

Author and educator Clint Smith summed up this disconnect well by writing:

“If you’re doing an MLK day service project, consider bringing a King-level analysis to it. For example, don’t just serve lunch at a soup kitchen, interrogate [sic] why we allow millions of people to live in poverty in the first place. King’s legacy isn’t about charity, it’s about justice.”

The importance of this distinction should not be understated: securing justice is a long-term struggle, one that may start with acts of service or reverence, but it must not end there.

Of course, as an American, the history of the Civil Rights Movement is imperative to my understanding of our country’s past & future, and it also takes on special significance to me as an Arab American. Our community and the African American community have long allied on shared causes to dismantle injustices, and it does a disservice to all to ignore our ancestors’ calls to remain vigilant and active to preserve our civil rights and civil liberties.

As the Arab American community continues to push back against unwarranted surveillance, obstacles to full voter participation, hate crimes, attempts to limit our free speech, and more, MLK Jr. Day serves as a reminder that these struggles didn’t pop up without precedent, and we cannot let them propagate unchallenged.

In the vein of action, Bernice King wrote of her father: “He was a purveyor of peace, but it is contrary to the authentic King to call for peace without being a doer and seeker of justice.”

It may seem obvious to say that without the doer, the Civil Rights Movement wouldn’t have happened. It is vital that we speak these basic truths, though, for those who weren’t part of the 1950s/60s movement, and who are absolutely needed for today’s movements, to understand what must come next: action.

The injustices Dr. King fought against—racism, poverty, incarceration, colonialism, etc—need our continued attention to dismantle them. In his honor, the most effective tribute we can make to Dr. King is a commitment to protecting the future through our action.

I hope you’ll join me in this call to action, beginning with an issue of significance to you. With the determination to act for the greater good, you will be the doer we need in our movements.

Heba Mohammad is a field organizer at the Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.