It has been a while since I wrote about Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The reason is pretty simple; there isn’t much that I can say about an American icon that hasn’t already been said.
There is an interesting story about his speech atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that hot summer day 51 years ago. It turns out that at least part of it was extemporaneous. Pretty cool when you consider that the eyes of the world were on him at that moment and he knew it.
What really impresses me, given the incredible strain of that time period, is his preternatural cool under fire. From an early age he had witnessed indignity, racism and ignorance. There were those even in the second half of the 20th century who really believed that the world was better off with a wall between the races.
History teaches us one thing that I told my students many times over the years – the winners write history. More importantly, you don’t want to be on the wrong side of the story; those that do spend a lifetime trying to change the narrative.
The shelves of our libraries are littered with books written by authors with only one goal, salvaging their reputations from the basic fact that they were wrong.
King knew he was right and he knew that the justice of the cause would prove that, whether he was there to see it or not. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
The principle is simple. We want to see a better world, a fairer world, a more peaceful world and a more civil world. Where Gandhi and King would nudge us is that we cannot have any of those things until we get our passions and our hatreds in check.
At a time when New Year’s resolutions are already falling by the wayside like so many snowflakes, we can resolve individually to uphold those values that Gandhi and King tried to emulate for us. Both walked into areas where people meant them harm for what they stood for – change.
One of my resolutions every year is to get through one day, then one week and then a month or two, without venting at ignorance or incompetence. My family will tell you that on this score I am a complete failure. Could I have walked into those fire hoses in Birmingham, Ala.? Maybe, if I saw the bigger picture and said, “Sure, if it will do some good.”
Because we are flawed creatures, endowed with certain traits that we cannot completely rid ourselves of, this will be a struggle. For me, it will be a mountain, with peaks that seem insurmountable.
Patience is a virtue and in our remembrances of King this week and next, let us remember that King at his best was not about words, quotes or speeches, but about leading by his actions.
Those actions attracted followers that would follow him to the lunch counter and to jail. On the day of his famous speech in Washington, he even had a wary admirer in President John F. Kennedy.
His words and actions were true; the question was how they would be received. Fifty-one years later, we can say they were heard as we celebrate his life.