He was a man who had a dream of a vibrant, multiracial nation united in justice, peace and reconciliation – a nation that has a place at the table for children of every race and room at the inn for every needy child.
He was a man whose vision filled a great void in our nation and answered our collective longing to become a country that truly lives by its noblest principles. He was a man who knew that it was not enough just to talk the talk; he had to walk the walk for his words to be credible. He was a man who put his life on the line for freedom and justice every day, a man who braved threats and jail and beatings and who ultimately paid the highest price to make democracy a reality for all Americans.
He was born Michael King in 1929, but his father changed his name to Martin Luther King in honor of the seminal figure of the 16th century movement known later as the Protestant Reformation. It was a fitting change of name for this man who dared to dream.
In his Birth of a New Nation speech in 1957, Dr. King articulated that dream in these words: “And so today I still have a dream. People will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as brothers and sisters. I still have a dream today that one day every person of color in the world will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; and everyone will respect the dignity and worth of each human personality . . .”
On the occasion of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Dr. King reiterated that dream when he famously said: “I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a 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.’ . . . I have a dream that my four little 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 . . .”
One can only imagine how different life in this country might have been had not Martin Luther King’s life been snuffed out by an assassin’s bullet on that infamous day in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. For me, several imaginings appear to be certain.
For instance, I imagine that he would not have allowed this nation to forget its calling, a calling summed up in the words of a hymn: “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.” And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
Further, I imagine that he would not have let us delude ourselves into thinking that there was little or no fundamental difference between Barack Hussein Obama II and John Sidney McCain III in 2008 or Willard Mitt Romney in 2012.
Still further, I imagine that he would not have permitted us to interpret the deaths of more than 2,300 Americans in a war in Afghanistan as “achieving peace.” Or if he were alive today to interpret the deaths of over 4,400 American Forces and the deaths of over 150,000 Iraqi citizens as a “mission accomplished.”
The years of revolutionary rhetoric and expectation politics might have been better spent, and perhaps we would be much further down the road toward the realization of his dream of universal fellowship had he lived. As he once said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” One can only imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.
But even so, Martin Luther King made his humble contributions. He gave more to this nation in his thirty-nine years than many people of equal talent could ever give. He broke the silent terror of McCarthyism in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 and gave voice to the plaintive longing for justice in the hearts of ten million black southern Americans. He pointed Americans in the direction of equality without ever giving in to hatred. King said one time: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
King promulgated a method of change that thrived on an organized aggressive goodwill that confronted evil and refused to be drawn into its web of complicity. He demonstrated that truth and love can be mobilized into beautiful, world-changing forces.
The man who dared to dream never despaired of his commitment to nonviolence, but he would always despair of his inability to overcome the violence-prone nature of American society. He dared to confront a nation whose total orientation seemed to be toward violence – cops and robbers, cowboys and gunslingers, bloodletting and death – with the simple notion that the human soul and mind are even more powerful than atomic weapons. In what I consider to be some of his most moving words, Martin Luther King said: “To our most bitter opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.” Those are very powerful words and exemplify what English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
His organization and message never had more than a few hundred thousand dollars in the bank, yet he turned around an entire nation in Birmingham, Alabama with a staff of only fourteen people. Had it not been for those efforts in Birmingham, the southern states might have been a bitter and bloody battlefield that would make the violence at Charlie Hebdo in Paris, or the ISIS-linked cells in Verviers, Belgium, or wherever else, pale in comparison. One can only imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.
Even today, his life cries out to us. His warning of nonviolence or nonexistence has been heard by millions who are now ready to say, as the song has it, “I ain’t gonna study war no more.”
Certainly, one would think that his fellow humans would have unanimously acclaimed such a man who dared to dream of a better, a more peaceful world, yet his life and words were constantly harassed by those who would wrap themselves in the cloak of authority of government. For instance, the FBI spread malicious gossip, tapped his phones, and bugged his places of residence. Ironically, both President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy informed him of this surveillance. But King made no protest and seemed more concerned about their fear than about his own vulnerability.
The IRS had him indicted for tax evasion, only to have the case rejected by an all-white jury in Alabama. However, his tax problems would be with him until his death. And the reason? King gave away too much of his earnings! You may remember that Martin Luther King was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Peace, a prize that carried with it a sum of over $50,000. King divided that prize money between civil rights organizations, Morehouse College, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He would invariably have to borrow money to pay taxes on money that he had given away. No tax shelter or charity depletion allowances were available to him, and he donated his early papers to Boston University with no consideration of deduction.
I suspect that King would be proud of the progress that has been made in the political arena. The election of our first black president, of black mayors in Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, New Orleans, Baltimore, and of the more than one thousand elected officials in the South alone are the fulfillment of the hope of this man who dared to dream.
It is not generally realized how much his movement stressed the power of the ballot. Martin Luther King spent more time working on behalf of voting rights than on any other issue. The most important civil rights legislation of the 20th century was the product of his 1963 Selma, Alabama protest, currently the subject of a major motion picture. I believe that Dr. King would be thrilled by the broadened ranks of citizen groups who seek to perfect our government through peaceful protest, vigorous investigation, and aggressive legal action. These groups are filled with ordinary American citizens of all faiths, creeds and colors who have finally learned the truth that blacks have sung about in a spiritual since the time of slavery:
“Freedom is a constant struggle,/ We’ve struggled so long that we must be free.”
Martin Luther King’s faith in America and of the world was a faith of “in spite of.” He saw humankind stumbling toward a better way of life in spite of its weakness and its perversity. He knew the goodwill that is buried deep within us all, and he worked faithfully to create situations that would allow those good intentions to be translated into good behavior through social and legal reform. One can only imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.
Several years ago, I read A. N. Wilson’s biography of the late Irish author and scholar C. S. Lewis. It was a very controversial biography because it revealed many of Lewis’ weaknesses and failings. However, I came away from that reading with a greater respect for Lewis because I discovered that he struggled with many of the same problems that plague me. I feel much the same way about Dr. Martin Luther King. Did Dr. King have feet of clay? Of course he did. Do all of us have feet of clay? Of course we do. But the message of Dr. King’s life was that out of weakness comes strength. Dr. King accepted the burden, the mission that was his to carry, even though the cost was great, even though it would lead to his death.
Let me close with a quote that I believe exemplifies the man who dared to dream and whose birthday we celebrated on Monday of this week. In accepting the Nobel Prize for peace in 1964, this is what Martin Luther King said: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. ‘And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.’ I still believe that we shall overcome.”
And so may we also believe. Imagine what life would have been like if this man who dared to dream had lived longer.