Thursday, January 18


In the week that celebrated the birthday of the slain Martin Luther King, Jr., there has been considerable reflection in the media upon Dr. King's legacy. In every mention that I have read or heard, that legacy was defined by his leadership in the civil rights movement.

When The Sage and I, and our children, have tried to name "a modern American hero," we have always had a single consensus nominee -- Dr. King. There are many reasons for that. He changed our nation, and our national character, for the better by promoting and advancing our most important national asset: our values of freedom and equality, the image of which has galvanized and enlightened the world. Before Dr. King's leadership, that truly WAS an image, rather than a reality. Even today, it is still somewhat illusory, but since he entered the national scene, progress has been made towards making it ever more true.

But the civil rights movement, and the progress it enabled us to make towards making our treasured founding documents, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence, the actual guiding lights of our behavior and attitudes, was not Dr. King's only legacy. He is our family hero for other reasons. Dr. King was not a man who focused on a single issue. Rather, he focused on a single value -- social injustice. And like Jesus and Gandhi, he adhered to nonviolence even in the face of extreme provocation. As a family of faith, we understand that he was driven by his reverence for life, and the quality of life, dictated by his understanding of the nature and commandments of his God. Dr. King was one of the first prominent Americans to speak out against the conflict in Vietnam -- not

Op-ed writer Bob Herbert of the NY Times is always worth reading. What he writes today about Dr. King's missing voice struck me anew. While Dr. King was recognized as a leader of a "movement," his authority as a religious was the foundation of his credibility. There is no comparable voice today. The voices in the morals/family issues spectrum given most media exposure and national influence are fixated on denying equality to gays and women, fighting scientific discovery (think global warming), celebrating and promoting adventurous wars, and preaching a religion that equates the acquisition of personal wealth with virtue, not on redressing social injustice.

Dr. King famously made a speech in 1967 denouncing the war in Vietnam. He was almost universally criticized, not only for stepping outside of the civil rights movement, but because at the time few were courageous enough to buck the "America can't lost a war!" meme. Why did he do it? "[B]ecause my conscience leaves me no other choice.”


It’s both gratifying and important that we honor this great man with a national holiday. But it’s disturbing that we pay so much more attention to the celebrations than we do to the absolutely crucial lessons that he spent much of his life trying to teach us.

Whether it’s the war in Iraq, or the plight of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the violence and self-destructive behavior that plagues so many black Americans, our attitude toward the wisdom of Dr. King has been that of the drug addict or alcoholic to the notion that there might be a better way. We give lip service to it, and then we ignore it.

In the Vietnam speech, Dr. King said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” He may as well have been speaking into the void. The war in Iraq, a reprise of Vietnam, will cost us well over a trillion dollars before we’re done, and probably more than two trillion. More than 3,000 American G.I.’s have been killed and the death toll for Iraqis is tallied by the scores of thousands.

No one knows what to do, although the politicians and the pundits are all over television, day and night, background singers to the carnage.

Here at home the city of New Orleans is on life support, struggling to survive the combined effects of a catastrophic flood, the unconscionable neglect of the federal government, and the monumental ineptitude of its own local officials. As ordinary residents of New Orleans continue to suffer, the rest of the nation has casually turned away. The debacle is no longer being televised. So it must be over.

Dr. King held the unfashionable view that we had an obligation to help those who are in trouble, and to speak out against unfair treatment and social injustice. “Our lives begin to end,” he said, “the day we become silent about things that matter.”

New Orleans matters. And the long dark night of the war in Iraq must surely matter. But not enough voices of protest are being raised in either case. The anger quotient is much too low. You can’t stop America’s involvement in a senseless war or revive a dying American city if your greatest passion is kicking back with pizza and beer and tuning in to “American Idol.”

The quality of life for black Americans more than 38 years after the death of Dr. King is a mixed bag. Blacks are far better off economically and educationally than ever before. Barack Obama is a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, and the last two secretaries of state have been black.

But the ominous shadow of racial prejudice is still with us. Even President Bush acknowledged that conditions in New Orleans pre-Katrina were proof of that. The nation’s prisons are filled to the bursting point with black men who have failed, or been failed, and have no viable future. And too many black Americans are willing and even eager to see themselves in the culturally depraved lineup of gangsters, pimps and whores.

Dr. King would be 78 now, and I can’t believe that he would be too thrilled by what’s going on. In his view: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

We miss his leadership, all of us, whether we’re wise enough to realize it or not.

He adhered to nonviolence, but Dr. King was no less a fighter, one of great courage. He was a knight whose armor was the word of his god. He gained no great worldly goods for his efforts. Yes, he is now given honors few have achieved in our nation. But he could not have foreseen that. He was not, admittedly, a perfect human being. He never claimed to be. I don't think he could have dreamed, in his short life and career, how a humble black pastor in America, with his experiences, could have so profoundly influenced our future. He did perceive, as we know, that his life was endangered. It did not deter him from his purpose -- his conscience, as he said, would not permit it.

I could say: Would that we had such a man, or men, or women today. The fact is, we may. They may not be as articulate, they may not be as charismatic. They don't elicit the same kind of electricity, and the same kind of courage may not be required of them (Dr. King knew he faced a very real threat of assassination every day). But even if they fulfilled all of those requirements -- in a nation that's fixated on American Idol -- they just wouldn't get the coverage.

Tags: ,


Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home