January 16, 2006
Mine eyes have seen the gloryBy Rick Moran
He was a not a very tall man, standing barely 5' 7', but he was powerfully built. His barrel chest and broad shoulders gave the impression of a man possessed of great strength while his short gait and cat—like movements denoted a man of purpose. Surprisingly graceful, he had large, delicate hands that moved hypnotically when he spoke.
And when he spoke, the thunder rolled.
It is a constant source of amazement to me that even today, more than 3 decades after his assassination Martin Luther King can be a source of controversy. I attribute it partly to the fact that so many alive today did not see him in the flesh but rather have only glimpsed his image in the grainy, black and white kinescopes and primitive video tapes that survive him. That, and the complicated legacy he left behind allows those so inclined to associate Dr. King with all manner of moral and political sins that, like it or not, was part of the totality of his persona.
Regardless of what you think of King as a man or a political icon, as a figure in American history he was and remains a giant, easily as important as most of the founding fathers. In fact, from my own perspective, only George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had a greater impact on our history. If Washington can be called the 'Father of our Country' and Jefferson the 'Father of American Ideals', then certainly Martin Luther King should be known as 'The Father of the American Conscience.'
He was that and more. In a very real way, Martin Luther King saved the soul of America — saved it from the ruinous, scandalous, shameless practice of segregating human beings simply based on the color of their skin. His fight was not with white America but rather with history itself, a history that trapped Americans of all colors behind bars erected 300 years before he was born when the first black slaves landed on the pristine shores of the New World. America, which held out the prospect to remake the world, from that day forward failed to live up to its promise as a place where mankind could start anew. By allowing the sin of slavery to take root and flourish, our ancestors condemned the rest of us to living under the weight of three centuries and counting of unconscionable injustice, discrimination, and hate.
Quite a burden, that. And in his own way, Dr. King sought to lift that burden by holding a mirror up to the rest of us while asking simple, straightforward questions.
Does 'All men are created equal' mean anything or are they just pretty words? Does 'Equal justice under the law' have any significance or is it a lie? And most importantly, how can you love your neighbor while denying him the basic human dignity of recognizing his worth as an individual American citizen?
At bottom, King's message was firmly rooted in Christianity and the Bible. But it was the political ramifications of King's ideas that were seen as a threat. A century after the Civil War, the South was still reeling from the effects of the aftermath of that conflict, the former slaves having moved from bondage to the serfdom of second class citizenship. Codified into law, melded into the landscape by tradition and habit, Jim Crow segregation was a millstone around the neck of southerners as 'Whites Only' signs served to enforce the degradation and add to the indignities suffered by people of color.
Describing injustice was easy. As a minister, King's thundering sermons on segregation from his pulpit at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church were filled with dark biblical images which provided a solid, moral justification for his campaign. But it was in the realm of politics that the problem itself would have to be solved. And in that arena, King proved himself one of the canniest and shrewdest political operators of the 20th century.
King was one of the first politicians to recognize the extraordinary power of television. Unlike Eisenhower or even Kennedy, King saw TV as a medium where emotions could be manipulated to serve a political purpose. Where Kennedy saw television as a vehicle to enhance his celebrity, King saw it as a way to shame the vast majority of citizens who were either truly unaware of didn't care about the plight of their fellow Americans of color in the South. To that end, King's protests were staged to provoke a response from their primary tormentors — the southern authorities — who King knew would fight tooth and nail to hang on to Jim Crow. He recognized early on that the tactics of non—violence in the face of extreme provocation would place the bulk of the American people on his side. In the end, the moral courage shown by blacks across the South who endured the unspeakable tactics of the authorities proved King right.
As an orator, King had no equal in the 20th century. Blessed with a mellifluous voice and a razor sharp pen, King's speeches not only inspired, they provoked. They got people angry. They made people think. In the end, he moved millions with his words. His 'I have a dream speech' delivered in front of the Lincoln memorial before a nationwide audience brilliantly set forth in easy to understand and emotionally appealing language a cultural and political realization of all that America stands for. The speech has been called the greatest political testament in American history in that it calls forth our better angels to give dignity to all — white and black — in a spirit of Christian charity and patriotic devotion. For above all, the speech was quintessentially American in flavor; optimistic, looking toward the future, and a call to action that evoked the spirit of patriots going back to our founding.
Toward the end of his life, King's message began to get lost in the cacophony of competing voices in the civil rights movement that called for more direct action and confrontational tactics with white authorities. While Jim Crow was legally gone, there was much work left to be done and many believed that the path to justice for all African Americans, both north and south, was to be found in more aggressive voices who sought economic justice for the nation's minority poor. King recognized this and sought without much success to moderate some of the more radical calls for economic revolution. It will always be a source of speculation as to whether or not King could have guided the civil rights movement through this enormously troubled time of riots and violence. Some historians point to his declining influence and even open opposition to him on the part of some in the civil rights movement as proof that eventually, King would have been marginalized as a political figure.
Given King's enormous talents as an organizer and politician, one could make a strong argument against that notion. It is rather other aspects of his complex legacy that we would probably see today as problematic. His support for affirmative action has been questioned despite the fact that he clearly saw the necessity for compensatory treatment in order to 'level the playing field' for African Americans:
The real question is would Dr. King approve of what 'affirmative action' has become. It now has little to do with 'compensatory treatment' and much more to do with disguised quotas, exclusionary practices, and reverse discrimination. Somehow, I don't think the man who said 'I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,' would agree with the way that affirmative action programs are administered today.
As for the rest of his legacy, there will always be those who point to failings in King's personal and political life as proof that he is somehow unworthy of our devotion and respect. King was not a saint. Nor was he perfect. He was, after all, human. Even his association with suspected communists could be understood in terms of the struggle he was carrying on. King used the raw materials at hand to fashion a coalition to change society. The fact that some people in that coalition had ties to the Communist Party—USA was irrelevant to King who despised the Communist party's atheism. Even Hunter Pitt Odell, a close aide of King's and suspected communist, was kept on despite the urging of both Robert and John Kennedy to fire him. King was unwilling to jettison a loyal aide simply because his associations angered the government.
The real legacy of Martin Luther King is not in his speeches or what the civil rights movement eventually became — just another group of special pleaders grasping for favors from government. Instead, it is in his ideas for a just and free society where King still lives in our hearts and minds. King's otherworldly courage in taking on 300 years of oppression while holding malice towards none and charity for all remains one of the most inspiring achievements in American history. For that, it seems the least we can do to honor his birthday once a year and reflect on what a different country indeed the United States of America would be if Dr. King had never been born.
Rick Moran is a frequent contributor and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse.