"The ultimate test of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and moments of convenience, but where he stands in moments of challenge and moments of controversy."
-- Dr. Martin Luther King, January 1965.
Tomorrow the nation pauses to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, 85 years and a few days after his birth, and nearly 46 years after his work for social and economic justice and peace was cut short by an assassin's bullet. On Martin Luther King Day, there will speeches galore and millions of volunteers undertaking worthwhile projects -- all with the goal of keeping alive the memory of a great man.
Here's another exercise: Imagine an America where Dr. King had never been born. It isn't hard to do. Thank -- or maybe "thank" -- Gov. Corbett and his political allies in Pennsylvania for reminding us what society might be like if some of us lost the right to vote, if poor children are denied an equal education, if economic injustice was considered a bug, not a feature, of modern life.
It all came to a head this Friday, the eve of the three-day holiday weekend. It started with voting rights. In 1965, King and his followers (some of whom were viciously beaten by state troopers in their first attempt) marched 50 miles on their sore feet from Selma, Ala., to the capital of Montgomery, leading to the federal Voting Rights Act. In 2011, Corbett tried to undercut what those marchers had done by moving a pen a few centimeters across a sheet of paper, and signing a Voter ID law that -- in the name of a completely invented problem -- threatened to needlessly strip thousands of people, among them large numbers of minorities, young people and college students, of the ability to cast a ballot.
Fortunately, just as in the 1960s, the judiciary sought to protect what craven politicians would take away. Commonwealth Judge Bernard McGinley called the Voter ID a "substantial threat" to voting rights on Friday, and he struck it down, for now. He also lashed out at the Corbett administration for "a culture of misinformation" about what the law actually was intended to do. But those like Dr. King who where there on that day when Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would have been appalled that the Pennsylvania gambit even got this far.
So where was Corbett when the court ruling going down? Good question. Students and teachers at Philadelphia's much-honored public Central High were wondering the exact same thing. They were expecting Gov. Corbett to arrive there Friday morning to honor the achievements of Central and two other Philadelphia public high schools -- the governor's very first visit to a Philadelphia public school in the 36 months since he took office.
During that time that he's stayed away, Corbett has overseen large-scale cuts in state education aid, a key factor in a budget crisis that has left thousands of kids, many of them underprivileged, lacking adequate guidance counselors or -- at some schools -- any school nurse at all, saddled with overcrowded classrooms and shrinking extracurricular activities. Not surprisingly, some of those students and teachers at Central would have protested Corbett. Such an exercise of free speech is certainly the kind of thing that Dr. King -- who once said that "[t]he function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically" -- would applauded.
Tom Corbett had a different idea -- he turned tail and ran. With literally a few minutes of warning, he bailed on Central and held a press conference in the elevator-protected safety of his Center City office instead. The only nerve that Corbett displayed was when he had to nerve to blame his cowardly retreat on "adult...theatrics," conveniently forgetting that it was the political grandstanding of alleged grown-ups that has put innocent children at risk in the first place.
Speaking of kids, you know that old playground expression, that sticks and stones can break may bones but words can never hurt me? Here's the thing: Dr. King actually fought off real sticks and stones because of the deep courage of his convictions. During one march through Chicago in 1966 that was met with violence, an interviewer asked if he'd been struck by a rock, and he replied: "Oh, I've been hit so many times I'm immune to it."
Gov. Corbett had a chance on Friday to stand up in a time of challenge and controversy, to explain what he believes about education and why he did what he did. I suspect that even some who disagree with him would have at least applauded his inner resolve, if he had done so. But he didn't do that. He ran, like a scared little boy...afraid that mere words would hurt him
They say that sometimes tradition is honored in the breach. So it is with Tom Corbett, whose public service on MLK weekend is to remind us, in a bass-ackwards, "It's a Wonderful Life" kind of way, of what the world might be like if Martin Luther King had never been born, and if some strong and dedicated people were not here today carrying on his mission. It's a world where basic human rights are shunted aside for raw political gain, and where the powerful can evade accountability for their actions. In 2014, there are too many places where that world has not yet been eradicated. Even a governor's mansion. That's why we need to remember what Dr. King really stood for -- and not for just one day a year.