By Yvonne Sam
Come January 20, (the third Monday of the month) Dr. Martin Luther King Day will be celebrated in both Canada and America. Every year, along with our American neighbours, we go through the ritual of honoring the clergyman, secular civil rights leader and martyr.
Along with the celebration, come frequent recitations of his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech — delivered at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, during the March On Washington for Jobs and freedom — and his final speech, “I have Been to the Mountaintop”, delivered on April 3, 1968, at the Mason Temple, in Memphis, Tennessee.
The following day Dr. King was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis Tennessee.
Before the executioner’s bullet cut through the Memphis air and claimed his life on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was leading the modern civil rights movement, opposing war and championing forgiveness.
In weeks prior to his death, King had said that he would like to be known as a drum major for peace and justice.
He fervently strove to ensure that America lived up to the poetic promise, outlined in her Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”.
The work undertaken by Dr. King had major influences for the defence of minority rights, not only in the U.S., but also in Canada and around the world.
Even Montreal’s Mayor, Valérie Plante, praised King’s “contribution to the pursuit of an egalitarian society that is free of racial discrimination, based on race.” On September 8, 2019, a celebration was held in Cote-des-Neiges as the borough unveiled the new Martin Luther King Park, formerly called Kent Park.
In a French news release, Mayor Valerie Plante said, “Montreal will become one of the first Canadian cities to formally recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s contributions to the equality of a society that is free from racial discrimination.”
It is obvious that we have become more interested in idolizing Dr. King than applying the principles, for which he died, to contemporary Canadian life. We have a knack for celebrating the hero’s past deeds, instead of examining how they apply, or might apply, to us.
I believe that the Black community has become very celebratory when it comes to civil rights. It is almost as if we are saying, if we have a park named in his honour and we acknowledge his birthday, then, clearly, we have eliminated racial bias.
I personally think that is part of why so much work still needs to be done. Instead of his birthday symbolizing some great success, we should see in his birthday a great challenge. The truth be told, there appears to be no accountability in ensuring that the dreams of MLK do not morph into screams or nightmares.
Of one thing I am certain, were Dr. King alive today, he would see the imprint of his life’s work all around him; for every time that we protest or complain, regarding social justice, we are calling on the civil rights movement. However, I think that he might also be somewhat frustrated by people, who think that racism and discrimination has ended.
In a newspaper article, on October 7, 2019, the Mayor of Montreal, who spearheaded the park name change and formerly avowed her recognition of the struggle for equality faced by MLK, openly stated her shock and awe that organizational bias and racism existed within the Montreal Police Force.
According to Dr. King, “Shallow understanding by people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding by people of ill will.” Additionally, the mayor heads a city council much less diverse than the city it serves at the pleasure of — a council that is 90 percent white, serving a city where 40 percent are not. Into clearer focus comes the fact that she campaigned on a promise to make her administration representative of Montreal’s diversity.
After the election, she was criticized for naming an executive committee that had no visible minorities.
Displayed disappointment at a roundtable on systemic racism, held by the Plante Administration, motivated Balarama Holness, a former Projet Montreal candidate and aspiring lawyer, to spearhead a petition that amassed 20,000 signatures — serving to further compel the public consultation office to hold new hearings on racism.
Holness further recommended ways in which the mayoral administration could help break down barriers between white and non-white Montrealers, through extension of after-school extracurricular programs and ensuring that boroughs with a larger population of colour, are the recipients of equal funding to the city’s whiter boroughs.
If Dr. King still walked among us, (old though he may be) what progress would he see? Would he be surprised that his dreams had not been realized? Would he need to preach, or teach, in order for us his message to reach?
On the issue of civil rights, Dr. King singlehandedly moved the needle on the civil rights movement. Has the needle moved further on, or has it been forgotten now that he is gone?
Of one thing I am certain, were he alive today, he would see the imprint of his life’s work all around him; for every time that we protest or complain, regarding social justice, we are calling on the civil rights movement. However, I think that he might also be somewhat frustrated by people, who think that racism and discrimination has ended.
As regards the park named in his honour, his message today, I am sure, would be something like: “In my name a symbol of leisure, is truly a pleasure, but we still have far to go, and must never stop until we reach the mountain top. Forget about singing my praises. By being on the front lines of social change, you would be honoring me, for all to see.”
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.