MLK Day Speech: Too Late

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with a fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time…The ‘tide in the affairs of men’ does not remain at the floods; it ebbs….Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too Late.”

When Dr. King wrote those words in 1963 the United States was being torn apart by hatred and bigotry. The consistently painful suffering of racism and the hypocritical denial of democracy could not be denied in the face of such a movement as Dr. King stood at the forefront, and through the actions of thousands change came. It is not complete, and as Senator Obama said in 2006, “We have not yet arrived at this longed for place. For all the progress we have made, there are times when the land of our dreams recedes from us…”

Despite that unsolved crisis of possibility, progress has been made. And it’s from that progress that we should take hope.

Our movement is different from the civil rights movement, but it is the same, too. We are both fighting against visible discrimination: one against the color of a person’s skin, the other against a person’s apparent age. We are both fighting against segregation: one for race-based integration, the other for age-based integration. We are both working for a greater good beyond our own identity-based politics that is built on hope, nonviolence, justice and democracy, in the truest sense of the word.

But we stand at the ebb of the tide, the edge of a fault line, and the top of a precipice. It seems that just as adults throughout our society begin to grapple with the prospect that all children and youth should be treated with the respect of full humanity, our young people themselves are shooting towards the future without the assistance of said adults. They don’t need our permission to build the Internet anymore. They don’t need our acknowledgement to make the latest band the biggest thing out there. They don’t need our angst to fuel their creativity or our placating gestures to achieve their dreams. Technology is rapidly enabling youth to have a growing sense of self-determination. Period. Their ability to transmit, relay, create and transform knowledge is greater than ever before. Within the last decade we have seen youth movements around the world lead to change, with hundreds of thousands of youth in Chile walking out on bad schools and students being instrumental in the pro-democracy movement in Iran. The American government knows the abilities of these exotic-ized stories, with Secretary Clinton herself speaking to an Alliance of Youth Movements summit in Mexico City. As Robert Kennedy alluded to, there must be tremendous value in youth empowerment to American foreign policy if one of the Secretary of State is fostering a belief in engaging young people.

However, within this country we routinely and grossly underestimate the energy, ability and power of young people to create positive social change within the communities they live in. Relegated to feel-good community service projects and segregated in low-value age-segregated educational factories across the nation, this country continues to try to teach children and youth that they are merely the recipients of the society they live in, the inheritors of something worth preserving and maintaining for all time. However, this flies in the face of the dynamicism of youth and the realities of the present. The fact of the matter is that high schools students in Lake Oswego, Oregon aren’t waiting for adults to change: they’re taking their fight against the town’s curfew law, which is based on age discrimination, to the US Supreme Court. Youth across the country are organizing for better educations than what they’re getting now. And yes, young people today are leading their own organizations to create change.

The inherent tension between these realities brings me back to Dr. King’s message.

“One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

We must stay awake in the face of the changes young people are making throughout our society right now, and work to support, sustain and enhance their efforts. Every adult can be an ally to youth. If we do not take steps to make that a reality, then shame on us for fulfilling the epitaph Dr. King suggested we would face, if only because of our own ignorance: “Too Late.”

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