To­day’s so­cial out­casts of­ten to­mor­row’s he­roes

St. Thomas Times-Journal - - COMMENT - CRAIG and MARC KIELBURGER Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE move­ment, which in­cludes WE Char­ity, ME to WE So­cial En­ter­prise and WE Day. For more dis­patches from WE, check out WE sto­ries.

Aung San Suu Kyi is mak­ing Cana­dian his­tory. One of only six for­eign­ers ever granted honorary cit­i­zen­ship, the Myan­mar leader will soon be­come the first to have that hon­our stripped away —be­cause of her govern­ment’s per­se­cu­tion of its Ro­hingya mi­nor­ity.

The de­thron­ing of one-time he­roes is trend­ing. His­tor­i­cal icons—city founders, in­ter­na­tional states­men, even prime min­is­ters — are hav­ing their lega­cies neg­a­tively re-ex­am­ined.

This his­tor­i­cal re­think­ing works both ways. To­day’s pari­ahs are some­times to­mor­row’s he­roes; his­tory re­quires a long lens — es­pe­cially when eval­u­at­ing so­cial jus­tice. Our chal­lenge is re­mem­ber­ing that per­spec­tive when look­ing at so­cial move­ments in the present, from Black Lives Mat­ter and #MeToo to March for Our Lives and Idle No More.

Take Martin Luther King, who had some un­pop­u­lar ideas, like his op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War. In 1966, two years be­fore his as­sas­si­na­tion, a Gallup poll found that 63 per cent of Amer­i­cans held neg­a­tive opin­ions of King. Fifty years later, he’s prac­ti­cally an Amer­i­can saint.

Jesse Jack­son wrote in the New York Times that King was an un­apolo­getic rad­i­cal who is beloved by Amer­ica — not as a marcher, but as a mar­tyr.

King’s evo­lu­tion from out­cast to so­cial jus­tice ti­tan proves that we can’t al­ways see the tra­jec­tory of a move­ment while we’re in it.

It’s tempt­ing to think we’d all have stood shoul­der-to-shoul­der with King at the Lin­coln Me­mo­rial, or joined the Free­dom Rid­ers on buses bound for the still-seg­re­gated south. Maybe you’re now wrestling with whether to join the next Women’s March.

Look­ing back, most Amer­i­can’s didn’t sup­port the protests for civil rights and thought King’s ef­forts did more harm than good. Closer to home, the ma­jor­ity of Cana­di­ans were op­posed to the women’s suf­frage move­ment in its early years. Few peo­ple stood pub­licly against the hor­rors of res­i­den­tial schools.

“Things we take for granted— the end of seg­re­ga­tion, same sex mar­riage, women’s abil­ity to vote—were once con­sid­ered rad­i­cal ideas,” says Peter Dreier, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege in Cal­i­for­nia.

To­day, King is uni­ver­sally em­braced, and the Fa­mous Five are viewed as Cana­dian so­cial jus­tice he­roes. Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is a na­tional pri­or­ity. Let’s keep those things in mind when to­day’s move­ments are be­ing crit­i­cized. When protesters are said to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. When sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors are ac­cused of us­ing the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

We’ve long drawn in­spi­ra­tion from King’s life and use his ex­am­ple of ser­vice to in­spire oth­ers to give back. Ad­mit­tedly, we’ve not al­ways thought about how time has changed his im­age. It’s our col­lec­tive chal­lenge to see him—and all those who’ve ad­vanced causes be­fore him— re­flected not just in our his­tory books, but in those cham­pi­oning the same ideas to­day.

King was ac­cused of go­ing too far, de­mand­ing too much, too soon. The same crit­i­cism is of­ten lev­elled at ac­tivists to­day. But if we learn from the past, giv­ing groups to­day space to build their move­ment and so­ci­ety time to fol­low along, how will we feel about them in 50 years?

It’s too late to go back and march with King. It’s not too late to join a move­ment to­day.

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