Most of us white folk really don’t know much about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And what we do know about him tends to be filtered through political lenses.
We’ve had our perspectives intrinsically warped by a nasty thing called slavery. For the first 200 years of the “New World’s” existence, the systematic subjugation of a people for profit defined race relations. Slavery served as a grim paradox for a country heralded as a land of liberty, and although white folk now generally consider slavery a bad thing, we're still not sure how to treat racism's most famous antagonist.
For a country that looks so much to celebrities for heroes, it took a black preacher to frame the "dream" of equality despite race - or indeed, because of it. King certainly wasn’t a one-man-band; the Civil Rights Movement had other celebrities, such as Rosa Parks and even the evangelist Billy Graham, who refused to allow segregation at his crusades.
But sometimes I wonder if all of the political baggage that came after King has unfairly tainted him. It could be argued that political imperatives like affirmative action (which is racist against whites), social promotion (which would be considered communism outside of the racial context), and even the current mortgage lending crisis (which has disproportionally involved black borrowers as liberal politicians blatantly gamed the home lending industry) have all been spawned by the success King achieved in gaining the critical mass necessary in his march towards parity.
King Stuck to His Message, and So Should We
I have to think, though, that if you simply take King at his word from the speeches he gave, his idea of leveling the playing field between the races didn't involve retribution as much as it did restoration. How much more eager was he to attain simple equality with whites - not just in law, but in daily life - than to twist society to the opposite extreme, where blacks now lorded over whites to try and get back payments for wrongs suffered in the past?
Even if there was a scientific, viable process for reparations, how far could that go in securing equality for all Americans? Our country spent a fortune in human blood, and eminent scholars continue to debate whether the Civil War was over slavery or states rights (which, in part, had to do with slavery, right?). Even the courts, in a series of rulings, couldn't secure equality in daily life. That would require social buy-in from more than just the political elite and a few sincere people of faith. So, with his made-for-TV looks, charm, energy, and loquaciousness, King served as the modern mouthpiece for a people wanting to live in peaceful freedom.
Now, I'm not a big Dr. King cheerleader - I'm suspicious of anybody who cheats on their spouse, and I'm not crazy about how he interwove Bible passages and political imagery. But King has earned the right to be considered a legitimate American hero through his commitment to non-violent demonstrations and beseeching the American public outright with the plea for human rights.
It's Not All Black and White
Racism is tricky business, indeed, because it is a learned response to something that is different, and over which the possessor of the difference had no choice. Thankfully, my parents didn’t raise my brother and me to think that blacks are inferior. In our tiny village near Syracuse, New York, there was only one black family anyway, and this family lived in one of the newest and most attractive homes in town. When we visited relatives in Brooklyn, the only racist talk was against Puerto Ricans, who were flocking there under the city’s newly liberalized welfare policies. So while I was somewhat bigoted against Hispanics, it wasn’t until my family moved to Texas that I encountered racism against blacks, and quite honestly, it confused me for a while.
This doesn't mean I’ve learned to accept other peoples’ differences. It is with considerable regret that over time, I have adopted many of the negative stereotypes and perceptions through which I now see people who are different from me. It's no excuse, but I have to add that many people who are different from me have also adopted stereotypes and perceptions of white people that are equally wrong. But for those of us who recognize the fallacies in and destructiveness of racism, King’s imperfect legacy can challenge us forward.
The Legacy of Dr. King
After all of the analysis has been done over King’s historical importance, I don't see why his legacy should be trivialized. Sure, he died fighting for union rights, a fact not lost on political conservatives, but he didn’t just die – he was assassinated for something bigger than Memphis garbage collectors. Sure, he could be considered a media hound, but does being savvy about broadcasting his message negate its content?
I’m not saying the ends justify the means. I'm not saying that all of his supporters had the same motives he did. I'm not saying that liberals didn't co-opt his ideas and manufacture social policy from them that ended up contributing to institutionalized poverty. I’m merely pointing out that King managed to capture the essence of civil rights and communicate it clearly and respectfully. Today, to the extent that racism exists at least as an acknowledgement that both sides still have issues to resolve, we can thank King for the significant strides he made in moving America away from the brink of a regressive suppression that dehumanized us all.
You’ll probably see and hear this quote a lot today, and cynics like me could easily point to how unrealistic it is. However, I tried something different with it this morning, and I invite you to as well. As you read the most famous part of it below, try closing your mind’s eyes to the skincolor of the person who preached it from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Try to overlook the theologically-questionable use of Scripture that was employed in parts of this speech, because I don’t consider this a Christian speech, or a religious “eternal rewards” destiny speech, or even a political speech, as much as it is a nationalistic, civic treatise on what our society should look like.
Try instead to concentrate on the message itself, because it describes a fascinating portrayal of free-ness… a palpable sense of achieving something that others consider so ordinary. This is what King saw:
"...I have a dream today.
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
"This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring." And if America is to be a great nation this must become true.
"So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California!
"But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
"'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"