Fifty years ago today, a sniper’s bullet ended a defining American life at the age of 39. Gun violence snuffed out a voice that had proved the power of nonviolence to attack entrenched injustice.
As we reflect on all that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., accomplished, as we stand in awe of his courage, we must resist the temptation to see him as some stone monument.
Yes, King called on the United States, this great and noble experiment in government of, by and for the people, to redeem the defaulted promissory note of its founding ideals. His clarion call for a righteous cause prodded the nation to pass new laws, and helped change a stubbornly racist society and culture, albeit not quickly enough.
Still, putting such a man on too high a pedestal is not only revisionist; it risks making our most revered modern moral hero impossible to emulate.
King is not only possible to emulate; the power of his example continues to animate millions of Americans, even in an era when the fault lines over race are far less stark.
He was a justice seeker; that spirit lives on in Black Lives Matter — for many the clearest spiritual descendant of the civil rights movement.
It was, after all, King who posed the question: “There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, ‘When will you be satisfied?’ We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
He was, of course, an eloquent orator, but also a shrewd strategist; where others tried to drag the civil rights movement down into dirty and momentary power struggles, King’s language of timeless, Biblical principle kept all eyes elevated and focused. That spirit lives on in the young crusaders for sane gun laws, who seek only a nation in which children can live and learn in peace.
He championed the dignity of a well earned living; that spirit lives on in the “Fight for $15,” and thousands who rally to raise poverty-level wages at a time when the wealthiest consolidate their gains and power, feasting as never before.
He dreamed of a time in which little black girls and little white girls, even in Alabama, could hold hands and aspire equally to greatness. That spirit lives on in the quiet and oft-neglected crusade to desegregate public schools that, all these years later, remain shamefully divided along racial lines.
Remember him. Revere him. Most of all, remember the pedestrian and messy and often political struggles behind the poetic rhetoric.
Rhetoric inspires; action endures.