In Praise Of: Martin Luther King, Jr.

NOTE: For the sixth consecutive year, I am moving this post from 2005 to the top in honor of the great civil rights leader.  It’s a tradition I’m happy to continue, and will probably observe as long as this blog is active…

Today’s OpinionJournal contains a moving piece by Roya Hakakian, the co-founder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. She describes coming to America as a cynical teenager, suspicious of everything, miserable, a stranger in a strange land; then she saw Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, and all her misconceptions about America came tumbling down.

It’s that kind of speech, and he’s that kind of man; King’s words, drawing on a long tradition of liberation theology that goes back at least until Moses and the parting of the Red Sea, have an almost mystical ability to inspire millions to this day. Were that his only accomplishment, he would still be worthy of a holiday in his name, but of course, there’s more to King’s legacy than a single speech.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s can be seen in a microcosm in the contrast between two very different men. Spike Lee, among others, makes the distinction between MLK and Malcolm X explicit in such films as School Daze and Do the Right Thing. ‘By any means necessary’ is a rallying cry for the more radical and progressive among us, to be sure, but King rejected the tactics of demonization of his oppressors and violent protest, in the (surely correct) belief that quiet dignity would win more converts than spewing venom. Malcolm wanted to overthrow the white devil; King wanted to change him by using his own conduct towards his fellow man to shame him.

King has his detractors…there are those in the civil rights movement who resented doing the grunt work while King arrived in sync with the television cameras; there are those who accuse him of sympathy with the Communist Party (and it appears he did accept some funds from CPUSA officials). He was a womanizer, and that surely harms our image of him as a forthright, decent man. Mere trivia, all of it, in the face of words such as these:

…Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice…but one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free…so we have come here today to dramatize a shameful condition…

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…We refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation…

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning…but there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds.

Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream…

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…

With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.

So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California! But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”

9 comments to In Praise Of: Martin Luther King, Jr.

  • Ryan

    I think your opening is a little unfair. Obviously Obama can claim his legacy, in that a black man being a viable candidate for president is, you know, exactly the sort of thing Dr. King was trying to make possible. And these two candidates, despite Hillary’s disturbing choice to inject race into the campaign the way she has, are Dr. King’s heirs. The Democratic Party, whether you like it or not, is the party of civil rights at this point. I will give President Bush all the credit he deserves for his (and Karl Rove’s, in fairness) attempt to prevent the GOP from surrendering to its more racist and vile elements, but he has failed. What worries me the most is that, unlike in Dr. King’s day, today’s opponents of racial harmony know no shame.

  • Ryan, I said I was going to leave the partisanship behind today and I am, so I am letting your comments on the GOP go unchallenged. Don’t mistake that for agreement; however, the idea the Barack Obama can claim the legacy of Martin Luther King because he is a black man running for president is not something I can agree with. Dr. King argued for a colorblind society. We should judge Barack Obama for the content of his character, not the color of his skin, to paraphrase the great leader. Our society has learned from Dr. King to have reached this point, but that is to the credit of the American people whose consciences were challenged, not Mr. Obama (I’m not slamming Barack – I think he is a natural politician, very likable, and has great things ahead of him)…

    Moreover, by so blatantly playing racial games with the black vote, I would argue that both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are cheapening the legacy of Dr. King, not claiming it. I would even go one step further: by treating ‘the black vote’ as a monolithic entity that belongs by divine right to Democrats, they are even going backwards. I say this not as a partisan, but as an observer who cares about this country and hates identity politics in all of its forms…

  • And to be clear, that’s not to say that the Republicans don’t play racial games themselves, to their discredit…but I think it is shameful that a historic campaign that could see either the first female or the first black president has degenerated into an argument over who has more right to ‘the black vote’, or who can lay a better claim to King’s inheritance. I submit to you that Dr. King, if told that this campaign of historic firsts had degenerated into a battle of racially charged infighting, would not recognize that as any legacy he wanted to leave…

  • Ryan

    I think your criticisms of Hillary are fair, but I don’t think Obama has, at any point, acted as if “the black vote” is something he should have by virtue of being black. It is to his neverending credit that he has refused to play racial politics. If anything, I think the fact that his being black has virtually nothing to do with his candidacy is the best possible tribute to Dr. King. If Obama wins his party’s nomination (or the presidency) it will be because of the content of his character (and I think no one will deny that his character is largely what he is campaigning on, rather than policy specifics). How is that not something Dr. King could be proud of?

  • Yup, I agree with Ryan. I get your point, Mark, and agree with it, but like Ryan, I think that Obama’s campaign is absolutely not premised on being “the black candidate,” or on being owed the “black vote” by virtue of the color of his skin.

  • Just a minor quibble – I didn’t say Obama felt that the black vote was his by divine right – I said the Democratic Party felt that. Big difference, and still accurate, I say…

  • Or rather, if I didn’t say it as well as I meant to, that’s what I meant…re-reading it, I could have been clearer. One more quick point: Obama’s staffers have not been as above the fray as Obama himself in all of this. That’s normal, but his campaign, as opposed to the man, has gotten a little bit dirty on this issue, too…

  • Martha Coffey

    Thanks for posting it again.

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