The ‘Ought’ vs. the ‘Is’

By Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO) / 1.17.11

“Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Milestones in our lives, such as birthdays and anniversaries, automatically propel us into a state of reflection. We look back and take inventory on our progress, growth, change or lack there of. On the 25th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, marked as a national holiday, we as a nation reflect on the progress we have made racially and civilly.

I fondly remember my days in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizing tent cities, protesting the exclusion of African Americans in an affluent part of Kansas City. From the picket lines to the first African American in the Kansas City Mayor’s Office, and now serving as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus during the 40th Anniversary, I reflect on this holiday with a heart full of praise, gratitude, and commitment, even though we are still trying to fulfill what Dr. King called the “agonizing gulf between the ought and the is.”

As we honor the life, legacy and work of Dr. King in our own way this holiday, the “ought” is still out distancing the “is.” I wonder how he would judge our progress as a nation today? Together we have made great strides in making the promise of America the practice; however, to say that we have a long way to go is far beyond the obvious. King’s holiday looms under the shadow of an earth shattering tragedy: the Arizona shooting.

Nineteen people shot and six killed. My dear friend and colleague, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords continues to make monumental strides in her recovery after she was shot in the head at point blank range.

Dr. King’s holiday – champion in the non-violent movement – has come at the right time. As we begin the healing process as a nation where mass shootings and random acts of violence are becoming all too common, it is critical that we ask ourselves: How did we get here? Regardless of the varying motives of the Tucson shooter, our rhetoric and discourse as a society has been rapidly declining for the last decade.

Words indeed do have power. And eventually words turn into actions. Individuals, including members of Congress, have carried on dangerously close to the edge. Names have been called. Americans have been riled up, and people including national political figures have lashed out uncontrollably, with unnecessarily brash remarks – even towards the president of the United States. We have played Russian roulette with the American people, abandoning realism, respect and civility. Without fully acknowledging the dark place where we have drifted, our nation will continue being impregnated with political tribalism, giving birth to acrimony.

While some shy away from acknowledging our reckless discourse I remember these words of Dr. King:

“On some positions, Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”

What is right? Fact based debates. What is right? Respect and civility among colleagues. What is right? Disagreeing without being disagreeable as Speaker Boehner commented. What is right? Addressing one another in a way that heals, not wounds, as President Obama recently stated. This is what we “ought” to do. It is time to take responsibility for our words, our tone, and our actions.

So in the power of the dream Dr. King described, and the mountaintop we are all desperately trying to reach, let us take this time to reflect upon his life, legacy, and current state of American politics in order to correct the mistakes we have made.

While we prepare to re-enter into the debate that sparked many deep and powerful emotions on health care reform, let us enter cautiously, with civility on the forefront and reflections of the man who set this nation’s heart aflame with his dream.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II (D-MO) is the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.


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