Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 89 years old today – an age where had he lived, I can imagine his singularly powerful voice still contributing to the betterment of American democracy. Can you imagine what he would have to say in these troubled times?
I strongly support we celebrate his birthday as a national holiday. And yet I fear that the elevation of Dr. King to the pantheon of great Americans who have national birthday celebrations has come at a subtle cost. These days no public official dares speak ill of Dr. King. For most, it would be political suicide. However, I worry that this universal acclaim has deadened the radicalism of Dr. King’s message. We must remember that he was a deeply contentious person at the time of his death. The clarity of the morality of his message about racial prejudice and social justice was not welcome in many corridors of power. He not only preached powerfully about the necessity of racial healing and integration. He also issued stirring rhetoric from his pulpit on the need for economic fairness across racial lines.
To re-listen to his speeches in today’s political climate is to reconnect with the hard truths he eloquently hurled at the American establishment. If he had survived the assassin’s bullet and continued on his life path, I am convinced that he would have remained a divisive figure. I fear that many who now pay homage to his legacy with florid paeans would be singing different tunes if he was still actively rallying civil disobedience toward the twin causes of racial and economic fairness for the marginal and dispossessed.
I had the supreme fortune of covering Dr. King in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. There weren’t many reporters around him in those days, and he understood the power of the press as a megaphone for his message, particularly the images that television could transmit. He was always cordial, but never overly familiar. He knew we had a job to do and so did he. He would be the first to admit that he was not a perfect man. That made him more interesting, and the power of his message all the more difficult to ignore.
So today, please don’t revere Dr. King the American saint. Please engage with Dr. King as the unique vessel for a message America was long overdue to hear. And please reflect on how that message, with all its fervor, is still one of great urgency.
(Parts of this post first appeared on Facebook in 2016 and 2017)