• Washington Post

To Bend Toward Justice, the Arc of History Has to Bend Toward Family, Too

Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington.

The annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday will be celebrated this weekend in Washington, D.C., with a wreath-laying ceremony at the MLK Memorial on the Mall, a holiday parade ending at Anacostia Park and a day devoted to opportunities for community service. Would that that be all to the weekend.

This three-day commemoration of the Rev. King’s life and influence unfolds alongside the reality that the largest single gathering of Black men and women Sunday is unlikely to be in a house of worship honoring King. Instead, they will be assembled in Southeast Washington, D.C., within facilities of the D.C. Department of Corrections, where the average daily population is roughly 1,300 inmates, 87 percent of whom are Black.

Monday’s parade, which begins at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, is certain to attract many young people in the community. Among them will not be the more than 150 youths being held in Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services detention facilities.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced that this year’s holiday theme is “Bending Toward Peace, Truth and Justice.” That message is overshadowed by daily events in this city that decidedly bend away from peace and justice, namely crime and violence. I can’t help but think about those behind bars who have made this city less safe. Or the brutality that has broken lives, the fear that has stopped neighbors in their tracks, the despair in homes and communities torn apart by criminality.

That harsh reality is on the minds of some of us who are being asked to honor King’s legacy.

Many of those housed in this city’s adult detention facilities are fathers. So, too, some of the youths in DYRS facilities. It follows that there are children in our nation’s capital who go off to school in the morning and come home in the afternoon to a place where the father is absent. He may or may not be in jail. He may be out and about building a life for himself, or tearing apart someone else’s world. But he’s not in his child’s world. Or the world of the child’s mother trying to make it on her own. I think of them, and a “family” like theirs, when I recall the words of the man we honor and revere this weekend.

“The family, that is, the group consisting of mother, father and child, still remains the main educational agency of mankind,” King said. Those words can’t top the majesty and call to action of King’s “I Have a Dream” oration, or match the moral teachings of his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” But they go to the heart of what’s missing in the lives of the many who are not free to join in this weekend’s festivities.

I think of boys getting guns and girls getting babies. Children who know how to create kids but not how to raise them. And I think of those dreadful numbers behind youth violence and carjackings, high school absenteeism and truancy rates, and the stream of young boys and girls – yes, boys and girls, not the amorphous “teens” – and face how far we have fallen from maintaining King’s “main educational agency of mankind.”

As with “We shall overcome,” King’s lessons are devoutly to be wished.

None of the foregoing is even remotely touched upon in the massive 90-page crime bill that D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, introduced this week, with Bowser’s strong endorsement. The measure has much to say about what to do with adults and juveniles ensnared in the criminal justice system. But it has little purchase on things that might influence a kid to not stick a gun in someone’s face and take off with a car, wallet or little dog. Or to decide not to raid a CVS, Giant or Safeway. Or to pump bullets into another person’s body.

Yes, the certainty of getting caught can be a deterrent. But there’s also the simple, moral notion that it’s wrong to harm others just because they may have what you want, or you don’t like who or what they are. Anti-crime legislation notwithstanding, that lesson isn’t learned at the time of an arrest, or in pretrial detention or when coming back into the community as a returning citizen.

It starts before thoughts even turn to guns and conquests. It begins with values learned and practiced at home, on the playground, in classrooms and at the workplace.

Please speak, Dr. King: “I said to my little children, ‘I’m going to work and do everything that I can do to see that you get a good education. I don’t ever want you to forget that there are millions of God’s children who will not and cannot get a good education, and I don’t want you feeling that you are better than they are. For you will never be what you ought to be until they are what they ought to be.’ “

Helping people be what they ought to be.

That approach to life is what’s worth celebrating this year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.