People across the globe are celebrating the life and works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s hard for me to believe that on August 28, 2017, it will be 54 years since I joined more than 200,000 Americans of every description and listened to one of the most riveting speeches from one of the greatest orators I’ve ever been privileged to hear.
At 67, I’ve been blessed to hear a few, but what makes Dr. King and this speech in particular, “I Have A Dream,” stand out in our collective memory? It was given in 1963, he gave many other speeches before his assassination in 1968. What is so special about this one?
First, the appeal of his message was universal. Dr. King’s speeches, while often using African-Americans as an example, targeted the pain experienced by “the least among us”, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or faith. That’s why there was every description of American standing in the suffocating heat in front of the Lincoln Memorial that day. Native Americans stood shoulder to shoulder with West Virginia coal miners and newly minted citizens. I was there with a classmate and his mother who were both white. We drove for 12 hours, round-trip, in an un-air-conditioned Volkswagen Bug and never complained. In fact, on the way back we were buoyed by Dr. King’s speech, I think we sang “We Shall Overcome” for the entire 6 hours.
Second, he personalized the struggles of others so they became our own. I was born and raised in New York City and my family migrated North from the islands, not the South. So, I never personally experienced being made to sit in the back of the bus or use a “colored only” entrance in a movie theater. I’m in no way saying that the NYC was free of racism, it was just more subtle and “sophisticated.”
Third, his actions matched his words. Dr. King didn’t placate us with pretty, empty platitudes. He had an agenda. An action plan. He described himself as a Drum major for Justice. And he was. He didn’t tell us to march, he led the march and we gladly followed. And nothing, absolutely nothing deterred him from his cause. He was beaten, stabbed, spat upon, imprisoned and (which I believe hurt him more than any personal injury) had his home firebombed while his wife and children were inside.
But he never quit.
Finally, while he espoused and followed the principles of non-violence (he said living as Christ lived would be radical, as was Christ) he understood the frustrations that caused violence. He said: “A riot is the language of the unheard”. When you ignore his compassion for others whose approach to volatile, racial issues were different from his own, you minimize his impact and his reach. You make him one-dimensional. He wasn’t. That’s also true when you compare his 20th-century methods to today’s 21st-century issues.
Dr. King was radical.
Dr. King was radical for his time. His behavior was as distasteful to conservatives of the 1950’s and 60’s as Colin Kaepernick’s bent knee and Black Lives Matter are today. He had as many detractors among African-Americans then as BLM and Kaepernick do today. And as much as I dislike putting words in his mouth when he can no longer speak for himself, I feel safe in saying that were he alive, his passion for equality would be undiminished and his behavior would be as radical today as marches and boycotts were in the 50’s and 60’s.
Though we praise his work, honor him with a national holiday, we must never forget that Dr. King didn’t become an “American hero” until after he was assassinated and we must pick up his mantle and continue to have that dream until America finally awakens.