By Justin Terrell, MNJRC Executive Director
On Monday, January 15th, 2024 the country celebrated the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday. Justin Terrell, MNJRC's Executive Director, had the privilege of joining the Rochester Minnesota NAACP as their keynote speaker for a day full of events. The following blog post includes his remarks from the day.
As we reflect on Dr. King's legacy in 2024, I want to speak to what we all know is true: That our country has been trapped in a cycle of polarization that overshadows our core beliefs and values. Two sides are engaged in a loud battle of ideas where it feels like the goal is to obliterate the other side.
Let's be clear, when the debate is not about ideas and a commitment to solve problems, but about existence, the outcome is destined to be human suffering. AND, this is in direct opposition to an assumed commitment to ensure human well-being.
Dr. King’s 1965 remarks at Oberlin College offer a prophetic view of this problem. In it, King tells us that:
“Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
King offers an observation of humanity's ability to use technology and innovation to connect with each other, across the globe. And while young people can play Madden football with someone on the other side of the world, or SnapChat can show us what life is like in real-time in Gaza or Israel, we still have not adopted a set of principles to negotiate new social norms that allow us to call each other brother and sister.
Furthermore, King provides a prophetic warning: if we fail to learn how to live in relationship with each other, he says, we will perish together as fools. Now, of course, being connected doesn’t mean we have to like each other. But, failure to use the immense amount of resources we have to solve problems is a foolish mistake. So foolish that we find ourselves admiring the problem instead of the options for solutions.
Finally, King reminds us of what the assignment really is. He tells us that we are bound to each other. That I can’t reach my full potential unless you reach yours. This flies in the face of our independent logic. And we can’t lie to ourselves and ignore the fact that this is a complicated idea to accept. Taking responsibility for people we may not agree with or even understand requires that we move beyond proximity and into a mutual relationship. It requires that we move beyond helping someone into a mutual understanding of self-interest. We must align where we agree and allow conversations to evolve in areas where we don’t.
This is in the spirit of the aboriginal proverb that says “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound to mine, then let us work together.”
So what is this liberation?
It is the idea that we commit ourselves to options instead of power struggles. The nature of human existence is one where power struggles will undoubtedly present themselves. Some things, such as “existence,” are non-negotiables. But when we find ourselves trapped in a cycle, a revolution, where the goal is to replace the oppressor with the oppressed, we get stuck and we will repeat the cycles of poverty and violence that King warned us about.
Rather, the assignment is not to replace the oppressor, nor is it to eradicate them. The assignment is to get free from the damaging cycles of oppression we find ourselves stuck in. And just to be clear, obliteration is not a pathway out.
Bayard Rustin, Dr. King's organizer for the March on Washington called this dynamic “breaking the wheel”. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison used this term as the title of his book about the Chauvin trial and murder of George Floyd. In our state, we have an explicit example of one of the key components of liberation.
For over 100 years, racialized terrorism facilitated by law enforcement has been allowed without any accountability. In the Chauvin case, AG Ellison worked as the chief law enforcement officer of our state to hold the officers responsible for the murder of George Floyd accountable. He did so with the world watching and calls for justice echoing in the streets.
After Jamar, Philando, and so many others, going back to the lynching in Duluth (where no one was held accountable for the senseless loss of life), the cycle was finally disrupted with Chauvin. Now we find ourselves in a new space, an unfamiliar space. Some are desperate to get back to normal while others are interested in innovation. And honestly, most of us are just confused and want to live our lives hoping someone else will set the expectations.
We are in a transition and it can feel like chaos. Because once you break the wheel, you have to build a new one and fully get free by leaving behind the old ways of doing things and the old ways of being.
This is the assignment: we must have a full re-imagining of how our systems operate and of how we relate to each other, with a commitment to work together to reach our full human potential.
I want to give you an example.
In my former life as an organizer, one could say I was critical of the police. Years ago, I began mentoring a young man who played for the North High School football team. That team is coached by several Minneapolis police officers. While the 3rd Precinct in Minneapolis burned to the ground, and no one is in a rush to rebuild it, the 4th Precinct continues to be a space where the community works to build trust.
I have sat at the table with 4th Precinct officers for years, arguing, debating, and at times mourning the loss of the best kids our community has to offer. In early January, we had the privilege of debriefing a trip the group took to Montgomery, Alabama to visit the Equal Justice Initiative's (EJI) Legacy Museum. Led by Bryan Stevenson (a personal hero of mine), EJI and the Legacy Museum put on full display the impact of slavery and mass incarceration on our country. It is a space that demands a conversation that reckons with our country’s history on race and these officers and community members chose to fly across the country to have that conversation.
The Police and Black Men Project is dedicated to forging relationships (proximity), having tough conversations (identifying shared self-interest), holding each other accountable (breaking the wheel), and demanding something better for ourselves and our community. Or in other words: liberation.
On this MLK Day, I want to invite you to set aside the power struggles and think about liberation. Imagine a world where we use our ability to connect to build real relationships. Imagine a world where we stop debating existence and start debating potential.
Remember King’s warning. If we fail to imagine this world, if we fail to use our resources to build a more perfect union, we will undoubtedly perish as fools. We have all the resources capable of solving our problems at our fingertips. Let us not perish like a narcissist dying of dehydration, while we admire ourselves in the reflection of waters capable of quenching our thirst.
Liberation is not a destination, it is a process. A process where we will become something new and our rules for society will change to serve who we become. Dr. King had to convince the world of a dream. I think we should be bold and accept that his dream was about us. This means it is on us to articulate a dream for the next generation.
Thank you to the Rochester NAACP for allowing me to share these remarks in person on MLK Day. If you are interested in listening to Dr. King's full speech at Oberlin College, click HERE. Please share this post if you found it interesting. And, as always, please support the work of the Minnesota Justice Research Center by making a tax-deductible donation HERE.