Even as the country celebrates the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Twitter war is raging between the president-elect and supporters of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a King contemporary and a Civil Rights hero in his own right. It’s hard to feel optimistic about the future of the Movement’s landmark policy victories—the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Voting Rights Act. The Trump administration has announced its intention to stack our legal system with conservatives who will decide what counts as discrimination and what counts as a remedy. The nominations of Betsy DeVos (who has devoted years and millions of dollars to privatizing public schools, which neither she nor her children have ever attended), and Jeff Sessions (who has openly embraced segregation), bodes ill for the vision of fair employment, education, housing and fair political practices. According to the administration’s plan for the first 100 days, millions of undocumented immigrants will immediately have to figure out how to keep their families, which include U.S. citizens, together in the face of a massive deportation push.
In the face of such threats, my job is to light a path to unity and change. Since the election, I’ve been preaching love. Love for the non-voter, love for the Trump voter, love for the Clinton voter, love for the Green voter. I like love. I see the wisdom of moving with love rather than without it.
But I’m so angry about the state of our nation, with a solid overlay of anxiety about the future. I think obsessively about voter suppression, about civic disengagement, about shoddy journalism, about wishful thinking, about the blinding power of celebrity. I could make this list until my computer battery runs out.
Being in this not-very-loving mood, I’ve been looking at M.L.K. quotes about love. There’s a simple-but-important quote in “Where Do We Go From Here?” After a paragraph affirming his commitment to non-violence, Dr. King goes on, “And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love.”
The most important word in that sentence is “decided.” That word reminds me that all love is a choice. There’s nothing inevitable about it, not even when the people requiring love look, sound, act like myself. Love is a practice grounded in choices. Hourly, daily, weekly, monthly choices, not just the ones that arise every once in while when we think we might have fallen in love. If I’m relating to a human being, including myself, I choose in every minute of that interaction how I’m going to be. How I love also matters. I can love with or without respect, with or without acceptance, with or without hope.
Love is a practice, and I don’t always do it well. But, like any practice, I can get better if I try. And I have to try because I also know, as Dr. King did, that our solutions have to be grounded in love or they won’t be real solutions at all. “A strong, demanding love,” to be sure, but love just the same. That kind of love has room for anger, but not for contempt. We can come to a shared truth about race in the United States, and we can heal our divided country by transforming it—and ourselves—with our anger and our love.