Friday, January 15, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther KIng, Jr.

Sometimes it is worth recalling the actual birthdays of the people whose lives we now officially celebrate on Monday as a way to extend the weekend, even though those Monday celebrations rarely coincide with their real birthdays. You know what I'm talking about. Most of us have forgotten that February 12 was Lincoln's birthday or that February 22 was Washington's. And most of us probably never knew that Martin Luther King's actual birthday was January 15, 1929. If he had lived, he would be only 81 today. Amazing, huh? It is stunning to recall that he was only 26 during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, only 34 when he wrote the "Letter from a Birmingham Jail", only 34 again when he delivered the March on Washington "I have a Dream" speech, just 35 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize, and only 39 when he was cut down in Memphis, apparently by a lone assassin.

The United States celebrates about a dozen official holidays, but only three individuals are singled out by these holidays: Washington, Lincoln, and King. It has been commented on many times that King just isn't in the same league as these luminaries and that there are a dozen historical personages more worthy of a holiday than King. Let me state in the briefest of terms why I believe Dr. King's birthday does, in fact, merit a holiday celebration.

First, King was a remarkable man - courageous, eloquent, completely dedicated to racial justice and promoting democracy. He became the nation's conscience for a dozen years, forcing the country's citizens to wake up and to do something dramatic to address our democracy's most gut-wrenching contradiction: pernicious and outlandish inequality in a land built on the idea that all are created equal. His use of a combination of soaring rhetoric and strategic nonviolent resistance transformed America. And his own personal commitment to nonviolence, demonstrated again and again under the most excruciating of circumstances, make him the most inspiring leader in American history. Two quick examples. When his house was bombed in Montgomery, nearly killing his wife and young child, and when people began to gather outside his house with pistols and rifles, ready to do battle, he sent everyone home imploring them to put their weapons away and to follow the nonviolent path. He radiated peace and love at a time when most of us would have been seething with hatred. Second, when he was stabbed by a crazed woman during a book signing in 1959, a stabbing that nearly killed him, he responded with complete charity toward this woman, showing her no hatred or antagonism whatsoever, wanting for her only help and proper medical care. Despite his personal flaws, Dr. King truly was a man of peace who never wavered from nonviolence, and who, by the way, never did any of this for personal gain or to advance himself financially.

The King we do celebrate and must celebrate is the man who recognized that in promoting racial justice we would finally be living up to the American promise of a just and democratic society. Like Lincoln, he knew how to universalize individual events. Whether it was Montgomery or Birmingham or the March on Washington, King knew that the fight was not just for racial justice but for human justice, not just for civil rights but for human rights, not just for integration but for a nation finally learning how to live out the true meaning of its creed. As Eric Sundquist says in his recent book about the "I Have a Dream" speech, King's greatness "lay in his ability to elevate the cause of civil rights and the cause of America at the same time." Sundquist adds that King was a devout believer in America's foundational values, and that unlike his opponents, he understood those values profoundly. Through his speechmaking and writings and demonstrations he "purified and consolidated those values by insisting that only when the revolutionary rights they guaranteed were shared by Americans of all colors, creeds, and nationalities would they truly BE America's foundational values." Just as Lincoln transformed the Civil War into a struggle affirming the basic principles of the Declaration of Independence, so King made civil rights a quest for the nation's soul that continues to this day.

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