[NOTE: Since 2012, I have observed the annual holiday in honor of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with a post on this blog. This year, I’d like to offer once again a few reflections on Dr. King and his significance.]
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I have been an admirer of Dr. King and his role in the modern American civil rights movement since my childhood, but the first time I tried to explain my feelings publicly was in January 1987, in a high school assembly at my school. There, I introduced a panel discussion about the life and legacy of Dr. King. In the conclusion of that brief talk, I offered an assessment of Dr. King’s impact on American culture:
“Even if Dr. King symbolized the civil rights movement to a child of television like me, there was much more to him than that. His concern for equal rights was not abstract or intellectual. His commitment was deeply spiritual: his grounding in the Christian faith, combined with his natural gifts, created a leader who was charismatic, compassionate, and self-sacrificing. . . . There were black leaders more militant than King, shrewder, better organizers. But none could rouse listeners—whether black or white—as he did: to indignation against injustice; to marches and demonstrations at the risk of facing policemen’s clubs, tear gas, dogs, and cattle prods; to faith in the inevitable triumph of love over hate, brotherhood over persecution. Martin Luther King, Jr., is, to me, one of the truly heroic figures of the twentieth century.”
Toward the end of my thirty-seven years at the school I refer to by its nom de blog, Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), I edited the History Department’s newsletter; during that time, I offered several editorials about the importance of the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King. Following my retirement from AFPS in 2010 and the launching of this blog, I combined those editorials into a post that quickly became–and has remained–very popular. The original post was put up in January 2012, and offered in a slightly revised form in January 2015.
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Next, let’s turn to a column by the New York Times’ Margaret Renkl, about her interview in 2016 with one of Dr. King’s former lieutenants, John Lewis, now a long-serving congressman from Georgia. In the course of the interview, Congressman Lewis spoke about his view of the nation’s future in the wake of the 2016 election:
“In these days that seem to be so dark, I think the spirit of history is still leading us and guiding us — I believe in that. Call it what you may, but I believe that somehow, in some way, good is going to prevail. And out of some of the darkest hours, there will be daybreak. There will be light. And we will get there. You have to believe it. You have to believe in your guts that it’s going to be O.K.”
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Lewis’s emphasis on darkness and light struck me at the time. A few days later, I read an op-ed column by conservative Republican Michael Gerson in the Washington Post. Mr. Gerson, who believes that members of his party have gone off the rails in their loyalty to the current president, argues that the “spirit” of the King holiday does not fit with today’s toxic political environment. That “spirit,” according to Gerson, quoting from Dr. King, is–or should be:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive our hate; only love can do that.”
And thus we’re back to John Lewis’ assessment in 2016. Dr. King’s image is frequently that of an idealist, a “dreamer.” It’s difficult for me to imagine what Martin Luther King, Jr., of the “I Have a Dream” speech would make of the “state of our union” in 2020. Still, I’m not a “dreamer,” and I tend to view the present as more of a nightmare than a dream.
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Looking at King and his teachings through these lenses finally took me back to 2013, when I was part of a group at my church working with an African American congregation nearby to present to the community a symposium, “Building Bridges from the Past to the Future: Strengthening Racial Unity.” As we prepared for this event, I heard several comments along the lines of, “Why can’t we just forget about ‘race’ and ‘racism’ and ‘move on’? What good can come from continuing to ‘stir these issues up’?”
Although I probably shouldn’t have, I took these questions personally. A couple of months after the symposium (which, by the way, was well-received by our community), I posted an answer to those negative queries:
And nothing I’ve seen or heard since 2013 has altered my stance on this issue.
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“BackStory” Podcast–“The Real Martin Luther King: Reflecting on MLK 50 Years After His Death.”
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: