It is hard to imagine our society without Martin Luther King Jr. His riveting sermons about freedom, justice and equality for all are permanently etched on our history.
Every year in cities across our land, many gather to hear King's homilies and celebrate the birthday of the civil rights icon. In Portland, too, these ceremonies have become a tradition.
I've noticed over the years that in our city, most of the speeches about King are laced with imaginary fragments about what his message would be today regarding this or that public policy. I've also noticed that most of those gathered at these events do little during the rest of the year to advance the cause of civil rights.
For too many, King's birthday, which falls on Jan. 15 but was celebrated Monday, is marked by glad-handing gestures instead of substantive discourse. What should be a day of events to mark racial harmony has instead evolved into a melting pot for white liberal politicians, who often bring along a sense of weary obligation or the patina of pandering to the whims of black leaders.
You wonder: How much are these people genuinely committed to the ideals of the late civil rights leader? How much longer can we tolerate the hypocrisy of those who pay lip service to the notion of genuine inclusion for all?
Attending these celebrations is a good symbolic gesture, but it doesn't do much to address contemporary civil rights issues. I am not advocating the abandonment of MLK Day ceremonies, but suggesting that our political leaders move from race-based posturing to debates centered on broader considerations of social justice. Current realities dictate that we change how we go about creating racial inclusion.
It is essential, on both moral and practical grounds, that decades after King's death, our overriding priorities be to help the people most in need, regardless of race.
If you are looking for someone who has truly exemplified the life of Dr. King in our city, here is a story about a young woman who spent her prime years working to help ensure a better life for others.
Katharine Jeans-Gail lived a life driven by a divine inclination to serve the poor. From one continent to another, everywhere she had the opportunity to serve she went, bringing succor to the neediest.
Like King, she sought to bring succor to a world divided by needs.
Even when danger loomed, she remained steadfast to her convictions. In the wake of last year's war in Iraq, when Arab rage rose against Americans, she insisted on staying to serve in Morocco. She had to be literally ordered out by authorities.
Jeans-Gail's life of unsung service ended horribly Dec. 28, when a car accident near Warm Springs claimed her life and that of her mother, Victoria Jeans-Gail. Katharine, the daughter of Kevin Jeans-Gail, chief of staff for city Commissioner Jim Francesconi, was 24 years old.
She had worked with Mother Teresa amid the stench and stink of Calcutta's wretched shantytowns. She survived the sickness and disease that slowly rot the people of Beni Zoli, Morocco, where she was helping to build a clinic. She heard cries of hunger and witnessed emaciated bodies, with thin shrouds of skin stretched tightly over brittle, bulging bones.
Her life was one that touched the sick, the homeless, the undernourished, the helpless, the hopeless and the dying. She's my choice as one who genuinely exemplified King's life.