In his glory years, when he was the voice and leader of America’s Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. was viewed very unfavorably by most. Today, he holds iconic status, beloved by almost all as THE voice of our nation’s most basic ideal : the equality of all of us.
That ideal is written in the Declaration of Independence, a document much before Dr. King was even born. As the Declaration is itself of an iconic status equal to, or even higher than, that of Dr. King, one might suppose that Dr. King’s importance would step back behind it. Instead, he holds almost equal status with the Declaration : both it and he have national holidays. His national holiday was yesterday.
Why, then, has Dr. King acquired such crucial significance ? That everybody celebrates his birthday holiday, even those who opposed him in life ? Even those who appear to disapprove of much that he achieved and who seek to undo it ?
I think the answer is plain : Dr. King lived the ideals that we try to live but often cannot.
He was what our consciences tell us we should be. He spoke for the ideals that we all profess. His voice and his life are like rescue buoys which we can grab onto and lift ourselves from the muck we live in, the fallings short, the failures we know we tolerate even while knowing that we’re better than that.
To be blunt about it : we know that skin color prejudice is absurd and that we shouldn’t do it. Dr. King spoke eloquently of how our own ideals as a nation and as people require us to do the opposite, and we know that his arguments are right.
We know this because we have already sworn to it. It’s right there in the Declaration. The equality of all of us is also in the Constitution that we say we love and pledge fealty to. The Constitution embraces the equality of all even more comprehensively than the Declaration, many of whose signers owned slaves.
But commitment to documents satisfies only our obligation. It does not comfort our consciences. Only a commitment to human beings can do that, and no human being we are nationally familiar with, who is also of our era, exemplifies commitment to the equality of all than Dr. King =– what he said and how he lived, and also the ideals that he died for.
And something else. Dr. King, we know, was a man of color, and we know that our nation has a huge debt to pay to our fellow Americans of color, a debt much larger than apology, deeper than foundations, crueller than disparagement. For almost all of our history as a society, people of color have NOT been accorded the equality we accord to all of us. We know this. We know it is wrong. We know that we are part of the wrong, that we live with it, that its taint is upon every garment we put on and in every meal that we eat; and that its accents every word we speak with the dialect of injustice.
Even those of us who do not harbor skin color disparagements live with them, because they are all around us, we hear them said, or done, every day here and there, and because we cannot often do anything meaningful about it — because we have to swallow it into is as we swallow our tongues — we live with social poison inside us. Thus we c all upon Dr. King’s words and deeds, to antidote the poison and to free us to aspire to what we know we should be. A doctor he really is, with the power to save us.
I speak of course of those of us who are not people of color.
For people of color, Dr. King is a savior too but, for many, he is something more ; a personal example, possibly a family friend, maybe a fraternity brother, a presence in the private lives of thousands, a Moses in an exodus : this last an image he often preached, marches for Civil Rights being in fact an exodus from injustice to a land of law. And more than the law. For those who feel a sharing with him of skin color and its consequences, Dr. King’s exodus is a march from disrespected to respected, from disparagement to dignity.
And why not also for the rest of us ? That is the challenge. To honor Dr. King sincerely is to take that challenge and win.
—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere