When Common accepted his Golden Globe for Best Original Song – “Glory” from the movie "Selma" – he invoked civil rights struggles past and present, celebrating not an award, but the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.
"'Selma,'" said the musician and actor, who also played a role in the movie about the King-led 1965 march for voting rights, "has awakened my humanity."
The film, which scored a Best Picture Oscar nomination Thursday, seems destined to awaken strong feelings in some and reawaken them in others – spotlighting a crucial time in our history while underscoring recent events that together add up to a national wake-up call.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day will pack an extra resonance this year. The advent of "Selma," along with some old anniversaries and new challenges, serve as particularly potent reminders of the enduring influence and importance of a dream one man dared to share with his country and the world.
This year marks the 30th Martin Luther King Jr. Day since the holiday’s 1986 debut, and the 15th anniversary of the federal commemoration's recognition by all 50 states. The holiday arrives flanked by some major golden anniversaries: the signing of Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma march and subsequent passage of Voting Right Act of 1965.
Monday also lands amid lingering frustration – and some divisions – over the decisions last year of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, not to indict cops in the deaths of two black men, Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The fatal shooting by police of a 12-year-old Cleveland boy carrying a pellet gun and the assassination of two New York City police officers by a madman bent on twisted revenge for Brown's and Garner’s deaths sadly added to the turmoil.
Words couldn’t always describe complicated feelings in a year when “I can't breathe” and “Black lives matter” became rallying cries. Popular culture can sometimes fall short as an accurate reflection of a mélange of emotions. But Common, in his Globes speech, effectively spoke to both anger and hope in framing “Selma” – and, by extension, King’s message – as a bridge from past to present and beyond.
“As I got to know people of the civil rights movement, I realized – I am the hopeful black woman who was denied her right to vote,” Common said. “I am the caring white supporter, killed on the front lines of freedom. I am the unarmed black kid who maybe needed a hand but instead was given a bullet. I am the two fallen police officers murdered in the line of duty…
“We look to the future and we want to create a better world. Now is our time to change the world. Selma is now.”
He didn’t mention King. He didn’t have to.
King taught us words could be a strong weapon against oppression, perhaps none as powerful as these four: “I have a dream.”
“Selma” also reinforced also the value of the equally formidable weapon of nonviolent resistance, and the worth in working with people from an array of backgrounds toward a common goal. There’s power in shared sacrifice, in knowing when to make a bold statement and, in “Selma” director Ava DuVernay’s brilliantly nuanced rendering, showing that even one of our greatest citizens was human.
King’s legacy can best be celebrated in working to realize his dream as we reach to find the humanity in us all. The America of 2015 may be a long way from Selma, but the march is far from over. Struggles from the not-so-distant past and current challenges suggest that, every day, in a sense, is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.