I would usually wait until January to post this, but with the current spate of hateful and thoughtless comments on Facebook and in the traditional media, generally by whites who simultaneously claim not to be racist, and to be for equality as well, I decided to put this up early. What follows is a slightly modified text of the speech I delivered in January 21, 2013, when I was asked to give the Saint Johnsbury Academy’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day address. In it, I try to discuss King’s enduring legacy during the twenty first century, and look to the unfinished work he left us with.
“An Overriding Loyalty to Mankind as a Whole.” Thoughts on the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
January 21, 2013
Good morning. I’m not going to make people raise their hands for this, but I’d like to start this discussion be asking every one to take a moment and consider if they have known anyone in their lives—be it a parent, grandparent, relative, family friend, or perhaps a neighbor, who has lived to be eighty-four? Think about that person for a moment. About what they’ve seen in their lives. About what they’ve accomplished. And about what opportunities the future still holds for some of them.
Because that’s how old Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned last Tuesday, on our first day back in school. He was only twenty-six—younger than I am now—when he emerged on the national scene by organizing and sustaining a bus boycott in Montgomery that lasted for 381 days, and ended public segregation in a city of 100,000, where only thirty one blacks had previously been allowed to vote. He was only thirty-four years old—not even old enough to run for president under the constitution—when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech in front of more than two hundred thousand people on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. That same year he led non-violent protests in Birmingham, Alabama, where over the course of five days he and 2,500 of his fellow demonstrators would be arrested, attacked by police dogs, sprayed by fire hoses delivering 700 pounds of pressure, firebombed, beaten, and shot at. And he was only thirty-nine years old when he was assassinated almost forty-five years ago, on April 4th in Memphis, Tennessee.
While historians are warned, and do ourselves warn, against getting lost in the game of “what-if,” King’s story compels us to do so. Had he lived, had he not been shot by a sniper’s bullet as he breathed fresh air on a motel balcony, Dr. King would have celebrated his 80th birthday in 2009, just five days before Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first black president of the United States. He would have been eighty-three last November, when Barack Obama became the first man ever elected president without winning the majority of white males’ votes, proving even more how much our nation continues to become one where all people are created equal.
But, as we all know, that is not the way that history happened. It is also important, as we commemorate Dr. King as a national hero, to echo what has recently been said from this stage—that real heroes have never been those with capes and masks or superhuman powers. Instead, heroes are those of us who have the moral fortitude to selflessly give of themselves for a greater cause, those of us who have the resiliency to stay committed to a goal despite the many setbacks they face, and those who have the enlightenment to see the true dignity and beauty of each person, and of all people. Dr. King was not a perfect person; he had his flaws, and it has become chic in some circles to often describe them, as to insinuate that errors in his personal character should compromise his achievements on the public stage. But Dr. King was a hero, and I submit to you that his heroism and legacy goes beyond civil rights, beyond the 1960s, and beyond even matters of black and white.
In my senior year of college, I had the privilege to work as a research assistant for a professor who was working with the Reverend Jesse Jackson to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement, an anniversary that we’re currently going through. And the thesis they had come up with was this: in terms of Civil Rights and Human Rights, this nation has gone through three stages. The first stage focused upon securing human rights for all Americans, and upon ending the practices of slavery and servitude by which one human being could be owned, as a piece of property, by another. This stage was completed with northern victory in the Civil War, and passage of the 13th Amendment, which banned slavery throughout the nation forevermore in 1865. Chief among its heroes was Abraham Lincoln, whose deeds we will honor and commemorate when we celebrate his birthday in February.
The second stage focused on securing Civil Rights for all Americans, and upon ending the practices by which only some Americans could exercise their freedoms as citizens—the freedoms to vote, the freedoms for equal opportunity, and the guarantee of equal protection under the laws. This stage was completed in 1965, and chief among its heroes was Dr. King., who we celebrate today. But Dr. King’s legacy is greater than the bus boycotts, Birmingham jailing, public marches, and even the end of juridical segregation that he is so often associated with. And that legacy lies with the third stage.
And it is that third stage in which we find ourselves today. This stage focuses upon developing a deep and endearing humanism in this nation, and hopefully the entire world. In this stage, we strive to reach the point at which we look at those we perceive as different from us not as “an other”—a member of a different race, religion, gender, or orientation—but rather as “another”—another human being whose commonalities with ourselves outweigh whatever differences of appearance, preference, or belief may exist. King most famously referred to this in his “I Have a Dream” speech by speaking of the day when a person would “be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” He expounded on it more clearly a few years later, however, when in speaking against the war in Vietnam, he said that “a genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become [worldwide] rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.” King wrote and said those words exactly one year before he was killed.
But that is the task that lies ahead of us, if we choose to adopt the legacy of Dr. King. It is to remember that the commonalities that connect all humans—the joy of love, the pain of loss, the desire for dignity, and the hope for a better future—make differences of race, gender, religion, or orientation seem suddenly trivial. It is not an easy task, and it will take a long time to achieve. But we are not without hope, as recent decisions to expand marriage rights and healthcare indicate. And we are not without encouragement, echoing down the years. The night before he was shot, Dr. King gave what would become his final speech, addressing the problems of the time. And he closed with these words, which—though delivered to a group of black Christian ministers and masons, easily transcend that audience:
“Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man.”
Let’s celebrate Dr. King’s birthday and life’s work by making the mountaintop a little bit nearer. Thank you.