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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

April 5, 2008
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Today is a sad day of remembrance in America and the world. Forty years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis. And, followed by the murder of Robert Kennedy only a few months later, America’s heart and history were jolted.

Dr. King’s life devotion to the cause of racial justice in America is one of the most important legacies we have in this country. His moral clarity and his personal courage provided our generations with signposts we still haven’t fully absorbed.  And the work to which he devoted his life is unfinished. It is crucial for our future as a country that we make intelligent and compassionate progress based on this legacy.

It is so remarkably striking to me to see the different life experiences that white and black Americans have lived, especially the generation who are in their fifties and sixties today. These men and women were in their teens and twenties in 1968. They have clear, personal memories of that day in April forty years ago, and of the months that followed.  For most African-American people in this group there are very specific, vivid, and personal memories of segregation and racism in their years of childhood and adolescence. Whether their experiences were of growing up in Arkansas or Chicago in the 1950s, most African-American people of this age cohort have deep and personal experiences of racism. And their memories of the murder of Dr. King have an urgency and personal sorrow that feels very different from the experience of white Americans of the same age.

My discipline is philosophy and I have taught social and political philosophy intermittently throughout my teaching career. At this stage of my career it is very striking to recall how mute this field of philosophy has been to the experience and structure of American racism. The ideas of equality, liberty, and justice are defining values in the field of social philosophy. And yet the topic of racial justice has not been a central focus; only rarely has it been even talked about as we consider the theories of Kant, Rousseau, Mill, or Rawls. And yet my whole education and career are framed by the murder of Martin and the candidacy of Barak. How could race not have been the central problem of social philosophy in America during these decades? It is a failure of collective social cognition, an instance of willful social blindness.

I think there is a connection between these two points. A part of teaching about principles of social justice should be a serious learning of the lived experience of injustice.

The majority in America is inching its way towards a commitment to racial justice. We can make further progress along this road if we will only listen in humility and silence to the experiences of racism that shaped the lives of so many millions of our fellow citizens.

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