As we celebrate the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at the Tidal Basin we should honor his genius, hard work, and compassion while also paying tribute to the thousands and hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens who also struggled for civil rights and equality. Dr. King did not start nor did he finish the civil rights movement…as it continues for those of in the District who are second class citizens still today in 2011. Dr. King didn’t find his calling until a woman named Rosa Parks sat down on a bus and was jailed for it in the town where he was a young minister. And long before Rose Parks sat down for all of us thousands of others had pushed, prodded, got arrested and died for that same cause and pushed for civil rights.
Thousands of ordinary citizens participated in events such as lunch counter sit-ins, or boycotted businesses that practiced and supported segregation, or marched across the Edmund Pettis Bridge only to be beaten and jailed for their belief in equal rights. Thousands of Americans of all ages, genders, and races pushed Dr. King to be a better leader. People should not forget the role that the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee had in the Civil Rights Movement, quite often they pushed Dr. King out of his comfort zone by marching when he didn’t think it was the right time or organizing children to be arrested. Dr. King did not set the Civil Rights agenda but he led when it needed leadership and followed when he saw others doing good work. Dr. King, his work, and his beliefs deserve this memorial but it is a memorial that is a reflection of the work of thousands of others too.
The District and our cause for statehood and full citizenship needs both the type of leadership and wisdom that Dr. King provided to the Civil Rights Movement but it also needs the grassroots activism and civic engagement that the movement had that mobilized hundreds of thousands of Americans. Our cause cannot be left in the hands of a few, it needs to be in the hands of the 601,000 citizens presently disenfranchised in the District and the millions of American citizens from the Tea Party to the Green Party that believe in representative democracy. We need a revolution of not just thousands but of millions of people to push for full equality. Dr. King was a transformative leader who deserves the honor bestowed upon him this week but what should not be lost on this great event is that he was great because he was a leader and a follower. People, the people of the movement, pushed him to step outside of his comfort zone and push for full and equal rights. We the people need to continue that push today for the citizens of the District…we deserve statehood because it is a civil rights issue too. It’s time to push outside our comfort zone because what we have done for 200 years has not worked.