Reflections on The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and His Legacy, 2020: Darkness/Light, Hate/Love

[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.]

* * * * *

Martin Luther King (wikipedia)

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.

* * * * *

Congressman John Lewis (en.wikipedia.org)

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.”

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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:

https://georgelamplugh.com/2013/04/01/race-and-history-matter/

And nothing I’ve seen or heard since 2013 has altered my stance on this issue.

* * * * *

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:

Margaret Renkl, “An Open Letter to John Lewis,” New York Times, Jan. 6. 2020.

Michael Gerson, “Can hate drive out hate?  MLK Jr would disagree,” Washington Post, Jan. 13, 2020.

“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:

REABP CoverRancorous Enmities and Blind Partialities:  Parties and Factions in Georgia, 1807-1845 (University Press of America, 2015)

Pursuit Cover

In Pursuit of Dead Georgians:  One Historian’s Excursions into the History of His Adopted State (iUniverse, 2015)

Politics on the Periphery:  Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About georgelamplugh

I retired in 2010 after nearly four decades of teaching History at the "prep school" level with a PhD. My new "job" was to finish the book manuscript I'd been working on, in summers only, since 1996. As things turned out, not only did I complete that book, but I also put together a collection of my essays--published and unpublished--on Georgia history. Both volumes were published in the summer of 2015. I continue to work on other writing projects, including a collection of essays on the Blues and, of course, my blog.
This entry was posted in Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Education, Historical Reflection, History, History Teaching, memoir, Popular Culture, Prep School, Research, Retirement, Southern History, Teaching, WP Long Read and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Reflections on The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and His Legacy, 2020: Darkness/Light, Hate/Love

  1. Merrilyn Eastham says:

    Thanks, George , for your comments on Martin Luther King—-very inspiring on the eve of his holiday. You are great to continue to write and to share with all of us!
    Best wishes, Merrilyn

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Merrilyn, and, as always, thanks for taking time to comment!

  3. admiral17(RB) says:

    Write on BOSS!

  4. Write on I shall, Rick. After *ten* years I still remain “retired but not shy”. . . .

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