Remembering Dr. King
Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 93 years old this past week. Only a few years my senior, I like to imagine he could still be alive today, bending the American journey towards a greater sense of justice and empathy. How might we have been different had he lived? We of course will never know.
He was taken when he was only 39 years old. That fact never ceases to shock me. How much he was able to accomplish. How much promise remained unfulfilled. How much the country and the world needed his voice.
When I first met Dr. King, in the early 1960s, we were both young men, with young families. There weren't many reporters around him then, but he clearly understood the power of the press as a megaphone for his message, particularly the images that television could transmit. He was always cordial, but never overly familiar. He knew we had a job to do and so did he. We were separated by that relationship, and by all the other divisions of American society. It was clear to me then that this man had the power to change America forever, but in doing so he would put himself and those around him in grave personal danger. He knew that all too well.
Dr. King would be the first to admit that he was not a perfect man. That made him more interesting, and the power of his message all the more difficult to ignore.
I fear that the elevation of Dr. King to the pantheon of great Americans who have national birthday celebrations has come at a subtle cost. These days almost no public official would dare speak ill of Dr. King. However I worry that this universal acclaim has deadened the radicalism of Dr. King's message. And by radicalism, I mean that what he espoused was far outside what was then the mainstream. It still is.
We must remember that he was a deeply contentious person at the time of his death. Dr. King would not, could not, suppress the moral clarity with which he saw the world. His messages about racial prejudice and social justice were not welcome in most corridors of power. He was a danger to the status quo and many who benefited from it. He not only preached powerfully about the necessity for racial healing and integration. He also issued stirring rhetoric from his pulpit on the need for economic fairness across racial lines. And he was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War.
To re-read his writings and listen again to his speeches in today's political climate is to reconnect with the hard truths he eloquently hurled at the American establishment. If he had survived the assassin's bullet and continued on his life path, I am convinced that he would have remained a divisive figure. I fear that many who now pay homage to his legacy with florid paeans would be singing different tunes if he had spent decades more actively rallying civil disobedience toward the twin causes of racial and economic fairness for the marginal and dispossessed.
So today, please don't revere Dr. King the American saint. Please engage with Dr. King as the unique vessel for a message America was long overdue to hear. And please reflect on how that message, with all its unsettling fervor, is still one of great urgency.