Wednesday, January 2, 2013


Note: I wrote the following article that will be published in the January issue of The Land O’ Lakes-Lutz Area News, a.k.a. the LOLA. As of today the issue has yet to go to print. Because the LOLAs distribution area is limited by geography and I do not know if they will edit any of my article (as is their right), I decided to post its full text here.

The 15th of this month marks the 84th birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Six days later, America will officially recognize the event with the federal holiday known as Martin Luther King Day. I can not shake the feeling that it would be better if the nation observed his birthday on the date itself, rather than as one of those semi-generic “third Monday” holidays.

Placing President’s Day on the third Monday of February has resulted in less emphasis being placed on the specific deeds of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, whose birthdays on the 12th and 22nd of that month used to be noted on all calendars. Now something similar seems to happen with King. As people come to associate his birthday with a long weekend off work, many of them tend to water his place in history down to two or three familiar quotes. Lost is any sense of how perilous things were during King’s time, and how central a role he played in ensuring that the American experiment continued along its rightful path.

We can debate whether it is caused by the media, or politicians, or the state of our schools, but it is hard to deny that popular culture has a strong tendency to look at American history as being divided into racially or socially isolated categories like “black history” and “white history.” However, it takes very little reading of King’s own words to realize he held quite the opposite view. He perceived history as something that is mutually shared by all sectors of society, and from which all sectors should draw lessons from each other to improve the present and future.

When describing his thoughts, King noted being influenced by figures as diverse as Socrates, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry David Thoreau. In his autobiography, when he wrote about reading Thoreau’s On Civil Disobedience, he explained that Thoreau’s “refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery’s territory into Mexico” was his own “first contact with the theory of nonviolent resistance. Fascinated by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system, I was so deeply moved that I reread the work several times.” King added that many of the actions of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s were “outgrowths of Thoreau’s insistence that evil must be resisted and that no moral man can patiently adjust to injustice.”

In “I Have a Dream,” King talked of “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” He talked of how “the architects of our republic” were, in writing those documents, “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. The note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Born and raised in the Jim Crow South at the outset of the Great Depression, he witnessed – and experienced – real injustice. He had to feel a pull to view America as representing bad rather than good. As an adult he admitted to having experienced youthful bitterness toward his white countrymen, and to youthful struggles over how he should look upon them. However, he did not succumb to those simplistic impulses.

King came to view the American experiment as a major good, albeit one that was not yet complete, and he consistently tied the Civil Rights Movement’s goals to America’s goals. In a letter he wrote to fellow pastors while imprisoned in Birmingham, he said: “We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom…We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.”

Many people know of that “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but how many have read it? If anyone wants to get a true glimpse into a man’s mind, they should take the time to do so this month. Race relations, and civil rights revolving around race, are of course major factors in the letter, but its overall scope is universal, and the social situations it addresses are broader than race, and the combination of thought and knowledge that went into composing it is breathtakingly deep.

The letter takes Thoreau’s notion that moral people must not passively accept the existence of injustice, and drives home its importance by observing that “we will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.”

King’s religious upbringing and the fact he was a pastor are evident in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” – which is one of the things that makes reading it so interesting, for based on current portrayals of King, most Americans are probably not aware that his views on civil rights were outgrowths of his faith.

Do not take that to mean he was shy of criticizing religion, however, for the letter bluntly said “the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.” It warned, “If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” Ouch!

If we are going to have a national holiday in MLK’s honor, we should think about the totality of who he was and what he believed. To pause for only a few seconds, and think only in childlike fashion that “he believed in equality and wanted everyone to get along,” would be to miss the big picture in a big way.

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