Monday, January 15, 2018

Human Progress Is Neither Automatic nor Inevitable, MLK

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, my favorite holiday because the man it honors would expect us to work for good on his day rather than take an actual holiday. I like to start this day by flipping through a huge volume of his writings, stopping to read random passages. I did that this morning and found some good ones, but there is one simple quote of his that I have fixated on this year: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable.”

My fixation on this MLK quote actually began months ago. In my job at One Street, I answer calls for assistance from leaders of bicycle advocacy organizations all over the world. Since last fall, I have had the great pleasure of working with several extraordinary nonprofit leaders in some of the most battered areas of our world including Bosnia, Puerto Rico, and DR Congo. In spite of great odds against them, whether a recent war or hurricane, or marauding armed gangs, these nonprofits have become beacons of hope in their communities. But just like them, I have had to recognize the infection of human malice that has crippled and even destroyed other nonprofits that have contacted me for help.

Martin’s quote is imbedded in his book from 1958, Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, where he describes the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement up to that point, but shows that much more must be done. I think that he was rightfully afraid that their successes would cause complacency. But even more than that, I believe that Martin had seen both the extraordinary potential of humans to overcome malice as well as the insidiousness of that malice. He knew all too well that backing off even slightly would allow of flood of brutality back in.

Over my more than forty years of working with nonprofits, I, like Martin, have come to realize that our species will not reach a point where we care for each other and halt brutality without a great effort.

I discussed this with a friend of mine recently and, instead of simply agreeing, she described a scene where a child is building a tower with building blocks. He places each block with care choosing his next to ensure his tower will reach the greatest height. Then another child enters the room and kicks the tower over. I tried to butt in here to bemoan the human tendency to destroy things built for good, but she corrected me. The second child did not kick the tower over in order to destroy it or even to harm the first child. He did so simply because he could, because it was easy.

Working to improve our world and help others is difficult. Harming it and others is easy. We must keep Martin’s quote in mind as we commit to this difficult task and always remember that human progress will never be automatic nor inevitable.

Sue

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