When Martin Luther King was shot down, America lost perhaps its most effective prophet and server of the community.
His commitment to social justice, his struggle for dignity and respect for all people — no matter their circumstances or hues — has made our America a better place to live. His was a message of hope born of a fierce idealism.
His dream — though still unfulfilled — remains, nonetheless, an important American legacy.
However, in the years between his fateful death and today, King’s evolution as social critic has been diminished by the rapid fire and distorting images of television and other media — images that reappear each year during the observation of King’s birthday and of Black History Month.
Today, much of King’s message to America has been reduced to 30-second television images and 15-second sound bites that fail to tell the whole story of his moral and intellectual development.
Who in America has not heard, read, or even memorized parts of the famous King speeches? Best known, perhaps, is the stirring dénouement of his March on Washington address, delivered prayerfully in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963:
“So I say to you, my friends, that even though we must face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed-we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
These are powerful and moving words. It is important, however, that we not be lulled by their familiarity into reducing King’s life to static, bite-sized aphorisms. King’s legacy deserves more from us as thinking human beings.
How many of us know, for example, that near the end of his life King had concluded that racism, poverty, and the war in Vietnam were inextricably linked? Or that he argued for a guaranteed annual income for all Americans? Or that he believed that the entire American social and political system should be restructured?
“Now, when I question the whole society,” he said in a speech delivered at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in August l967, “it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated.”
I try to imagine what America would be like today if King — the great champion of social idealism — were still alive, if his influence was not merely a “legacy” or a “dream deferred,” but a living, breathing source of inspiration among us, awakening us daily to the redemptive power of love, to faith in God, and to the promise of a better future.
Were he alive today, he would be 84 years old. I believe that he would still be fighting the good fight for modern-day civil rights: marriage equality, the rights of the sons and daughters of so-called illegal immigrants to attend the colleges of their choice, and stopping the pernicious cradle to incarceration cycle that produces more young black men in prison than in our colleges and universities. He would stir our conscience to be champions for the 99 percent, as the income gap between America’s rich and poor continues to grow. He would be opposed to recent efforts to undo key elements of the 1965 Civil Rights Voting Act. He would be this and much more.
I am always aware that King was struck down in mid-sentence — while he stood talking on the balcony of his second-floor room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His assassin knew what King knew all his life: that in words are found the redemptive power to change, to transform, to transfigure, to persuade, to spur to action, to provide solace, to smooth troubled waters and, yes, to provide hope of a better day.
Let’s not trivialize King. Nor let us permit others to misread him or misuse his words to further their own stingy and narrow-minded political ends.
If we are truly to understand King and give meaning to his sacrifice for a better America, we need to read his speeches, writings and letters-in all of their fullness and complexity.
Let us remind ourselves during our celebration of his brilliant, but too, too short life that we must continue to grow, to challenge our own view of the world and to speak out as King did. Let us add our voices to his call for a committed life. Words were his redemption and they are ours, as well.