The Santa Cruz chapter of the NAACP celebrated MLK Day online.
The Santa Cruz chapter of the NAACP celebrated MLK Day online. Clockwise from upper left is the Rev. Deborah Johnson, David H. Anthony, Keisha Browder, Paula Marcus, Kofi Akinjide, Sonja Brunner, John Laird, Andy Mills, and (center) Elizabeth Johnson.
The Here & Now

MLK Day meets the inauguration . . . and another Reflection Season is upon us

Of all the things for which we owe gratitude to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., one I rarely see mentioned is his wisdom for arranging to be born near Inauguration Day. (OK, so sources tell me that Inauguration Day was moved from March to January eight years after MLK was born, and also that no one can schedule their own birth; for the record, my sources are no fun.)

Still, the confluence of MLK Day and Inauguration Day has created a kind of “Reflection Season” for Americans, at least once every four years, when the annual ritual of quoting, or misquoting, Dr. King gives way to the majestic spectacle of sanctifying democracy and inaugurating a president — a process at once thrilling to half of us and terrifying to the other half.

This year, Reflection Season is especially fraught as it’s taking place against the backdrop of an unprecedented attack on American democracy and after nearly a year of dispiriting isolation and trepidation of a killer virus. We must also acknowledge the distinct undertone of grief and sorrow for all the lives lost to and injured by COVID-19 and social injustice, and particularly for two iconic figures in American civil rights, John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

If you’re a bit freaked out about what might happen on Inauguration Day or the days after, you’re not alone. What happened on Jan. 6 had never been seen before, so isn’t it possible that something as horrible, or worse, could happen on Jan. 20?

But that’s all the more reason to reflect on what this inauguration represents. Is it yet another whipsaw jerk back to the opposite direction in the maddening left/right zig-zag of American political culture of the past 30 years? Or is this a course correction that will last?

In past years, MLK Day has always been a cause for celebration in Santa Cruz, from the March for the Dream, ending up at the Louden Nelson Center, to the annual MLK Convocation at the Civic Auditorium. The pandemic suspended all of those in-person commemorations, but the local chapter of the NAACP was not to be deterred, opting for an online “march” this year.

In the virtual event, the Rev. Deborah Johnson of Inner Light Ministries in Aptos said, “A democracy, ultimately, is a relationship. And, like any relationship, it’s only as good as the people [who are] in it treat each other, and honor the relationship they have committed to.”

That is the stance of a citizen, as opposed to a consumer or a client or a dependent or a spectator, the other orientations to which we tend to view ourselves in relationship to the government. Dr. King — and the eternally upbeat John Lewis — would likely say, “Amen.”

The tone of the NAACP event struck a middle note between acknowledging the racism that still pervades daily American life and resolving to work toward a world of equity within reach. “I hope that regardless of the seeming chaos that surrounds,” said Sonja Brunner, recently elected Santa Cruz City Council member, “there is hope in a future that is built on the best of what we as humanity can be with each other.”

The executive director of the United Way in Santa Cruz County, Keisha Browder referenced the event’s theme “Justice, Reconciliation and Reparations,” and said of the local African American community in 2020, “We amplified our voice. We came together to truly hold our community to its values and to what it says as a progressive community.”

It is one of the pleasures of citizenship to marvel at how far we’ve come, and an inauguration is a good time for marveling.

This year, a woman from California steps into national electoral office for the first time in American history. That same woman, of course, is also a product of an Indian-born mother and a Caribbean father, the embodiment of the diversity that Americans say they admire. A gay man with a wedded husband will part of the new administration’s cabinet.

And, what would bedazzle MLK most of all, the Black pastor who stood in King’s own pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta is on his way to the U.S. Senate, inhabiting the office that, at the time of King’s death, was occupied by a segregationist and co-author of the “Southern Manifesto.” That’s progress.

Yes, when it comes to political privilege in America, I check all the boxes. And one of those privileges is the seduction to speak in a kind of universalist, white-man-from-on-high tone and convince yourself it’s the unbiased truth. I must acknowledge that the story of Kamala Harris or Raphael Warnock may mean very little to a woman or person of color squeezed and thwarted by the same racialized systems that they somehow transcended. Stopping to enjoy the view isn’t always a luxury for those who have to keep climbing to survive.

In 2009, MLK Day was the day before Inauguration Day. For me, that meant I was on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., in the waning hours of MLK Day, planning my approach to be part of the inauguration of Barack Obama the next morning. After an ordeal of logistical bad decisions, I found myself standing in the cold light of the Washington mall, standing alongside my brother and my teenaged daughter, all of us feeling like the bedraggled hobbits from “The Lord of the Rings” having traveled so far from our shire.

Around us were hundreds of thousands of fellow hobbits. I remember near us was an older Black woman, supported by her own loved ones. As an African-American took the oath of office, broadcast on enormous screens all around us, the older lady was crying. So was I.

And though my tears came from a lifetime of history-textbook ideals of America’s promise of democracy, hers mostly likely came from the deeper, lived-in-the-bones experience of being Black in America. Though our orientations to America were necessarily and fundamentally different, our tears, as they fell to the ground, were the same.

That was a Reflection Season worth remembering. And this one will be too.