Central to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s transformative impact as an activist and leader — and to his enduring legacy as a global icon for human rights and justice — was his deep-seated commitment to speak truth to power. From the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the lesser known address "The Three Evils of Society," and countless other speeches that shook this nation’s conscience and spurred hundreds of thousands into action, he demonstrated an unfaltering belief that truth is integral to justice.
“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper,’” Dr. King said in 1968, in the last public address he made before he was assassinated. “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
Dr. King never wavered from his invocation that truth — regardless of how uncomfortable it may be — is critical to America’s ability to live up to its stated ideals. He never lost his faith in the power of truth, either. As he said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1964: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
The vision of a truly just, fair and equal America, which Dr. King spent his life working to build, is still being shaped today — and we all have a crucial role to play in its creation.
As the mass protests against police violence and racial injustice in 2020 suggest, many Americans of all races and backgrounds are eager to do this work. In addition to assembling en masse in the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of deadly force by law enforcement, a growing number of people have sought out ways to learn about our country’s history and the origins of present-day racial discrimination, taking up in earnest the charge of anti-racism.
Although the commitment of some corporations and individuals was fleeting, if not feigned, this historic and ongoing movement respecting Black lives has ignited America’s (and the world’s) consciousness, prompting droves of people to read books about structural racism and other forms of systemic discrimination and inequity. It has also inspired many people to think anew about how they can make the spaces they inhabit more inclusive and just.
Yet, there are political forces at work to censor, suppress and otherwise quash these efforts. These forces aim to keep at bay the realization of true justice, the kind that “rolls down like water," as Dr. King spoke of so powerfully. Legislators across the nation have introduced and passed over one dozen laws to effectively punish the learning of historical and present-day truths by censoring fact-based discourse about what Black people and other historically marginalized groups have experienced, endured and contributed to the United States.
Shamelessly, some of the politicians who are launching this war on truth have used the words of Dr. King at the same time as they have pushed chilling legislation that would, among other things, allow parents to sue individual teachers for the spurious crime of acknowledging the existence of systemic racism.
In December, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis partnered with a group that has sought to ban from classrooms a book about Dr. King himself to announce an anti-truth measure that promises to be, in the words of a press release from the governor’s office, “the strongest legislation of its kind in the nation.” Florida’s clownishly titled “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” replicates scores of anti-truth bills already in play in more than 25 states.
By referring in its title to the idea of being “woke” — a term originating in Black American vernacular (e.g., “stay woke”) that has been co-opted as a derisive, blanket dismissal of the concerns of historically marginalized communities — Florida’s anti-truth measure reveals what this backlash is really about. This newly widespread “anti-woke” rhetoric is racially coded language, weaponized against people working to increase awareness about two issues at the heart of Dr. King’s advocacy: racial discrimination and structural inequality.
Ultimately, attacks on so-called “wokeness,” “critical race theory,” “divisive concepts” and “diversity” are efforts to suppress discourse on race and halt racial progress as our country becomes increasingly diverse. It is important to note that this flood of legislation seeking to suppress truthful conversations about race and gender in the classroom followed President Biden’s rescission of Donald Trump’s misleadingly named “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” and mirrors its pernicious aims. The Legal Defense Fund filed the first lawsuit challenging the order on the grounds that it violated the free speech, due process and equal protection clauses of the United States Constitution.
And it’s no coincidence that this wave of censorship grew dramatically after the record-breaking turnout from Black, Latinx, and Asian voters in the 2020 general election and the January 5, 2021, runoffs in Georgia. It’s also not a coincidence that this war on truth has emerged alongside an unprecedented attempt to roll-back American democracy. The slew of recently enacted state laws banning racial discourse in classrooms, increasing barriers to the ballot box and threatening protesters' freedom of peaceful assembly are all inter-connected. Indeed, this trifecta attack on fundamental rights endangers the very core of our representative democracy by silencing the voices within it.
Just before he was assassinated at the height of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Dr. King demanded that America live up to its promises. That demand remains unmet. Dr. King also called upon everyday Americans to act in pursuit of justice. Many have been answering that call with unrelenting activism, organizing and advocacy. With our democracy hanging in the balance, however, it is up to all of us to answer that call. We must act in defense of the truth. We must defend our right to learn, teach and interrogate Black history — which is American history — and the right of our children and all children to know that history. We must defend the right to protest as a peaceful means of giving voice to our demands and our dissent. And we must defend the right to vote as the bedrock of our fragile multiracial, multi-ethnic democracy.
We can do this by showing up and speaking out at school board meetings in support of quality education that all students deserve: education that is inclusive, accurate and culturally responsive. We can stand up for our teachers and for our students who are courageously speaking up in defense of their right to an education that reflects the diversity of their communities and that will prepare them adequately with the knowledge and critical thinking skills they need for the future. As our nation’s public education system becomes increasingly diverse, we cannot cede our classrooms to well-funded fringe activists who use intimidation and threats of violence to whitewash curricula and erase the history and lived experiences of the majority of its students.
Playing our part also means showing up at the ballot box to practice that most fundamental right to vote and defending that right with the fortitude that Dr. King and so many others brought to the fight for our equal access to it. That means telling your senators “don’t celebrate until you legislate” strong protections against voter suppression and discrimination found in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, which have been combined as the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.
As Dr. King stated nearly six decades ago: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency.” The time to act in the name of truth, protest and the right to vote is now.