A manifesto for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (By the Way column)

A friend of mine created a workshop where people could build manifestos. A manifesto is a public declaration of intention — in other words: I have a dream.

My dictionary wants it to be a political declaration by someone of national importance. My friend believes anyone can have a manifesto. You just have to believe it strongly enough that you would be willing to stand up in a public place and say it out loud.

I am imagining now what would happen if a workshop like that met here, around the corner, in honor of Martin Luther King Day. If the homework was to write down what you want for the world — or to stand on a street corner and say it. If children in rubber boots lined the sidewalk on my walk to work, telling me what they hoped to see and where they hoped to travel on what marvelous flying machines.

The mailman, handing me my AAA membership, could tell me how the city should plan for the future. The census-taker could ask me to list my aspirations and mentors and the characters in my stories.

It could be simpler than that. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I could talk to someone I have never thought of talking to before. Or I could get a group together — it can be a group of people I trust; I can start small — and stand in an empty snowy field or a living room and say … here’s what I believe.

I often hesitate to stand up and say I believe. Sometimes I hesitate because I have too often heard belief misused. I do not want to say I believe and have you hear I believe this, and only this is right, and I will not recognize you as fully human unless you believe this too.

Forcing one way of thinking on someone else is not belief. It is the opposite of belief. My dictionary tells me that “believe” comes from old English, from “leubh” — to love, to desire. “Believed” and “beloved” are, in fact, twins from the same root. They are both sloppy, messy and glad. They are both work. They have shape, and they are infinitely flexible.

To believe a thing means to know it. See it whole, with all its angles and pits. Let it surprise me. Hold a light steady, so the person next to me can light a wick from it if they like and, if I’m lucky, rest a head against my shoulder too.

This I believe.


I first wrote this column as a By the Way in the Eagle in 2009. Re-reading it today … it feels even more relevant now than it did then. In the photo at the top, a statue honors Martin Luther King, Jr. Courtesy photo by Diógenes el Filósofo.

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