Monday, January 16, 2012

MLK, Jr. and Me

I posted this a year ago on the same occasion and was encouraged by a friend to do so again. I tried to polish it up a bit (one often winces when reading something one wrote even an hour ago), but you'll have to be the judge.


My relationship with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is complicated. Not that I ever met the man. His too-short life ended while I was still a boy, taken from him by an assassin's bullet in Memphis in 1968. I grew up thereafter with the notion, solidly inculcated by the public schools and the elite media, that he was indeed a great American, a great man. Although I am white and from the South, my parents were not political in any sense and it never occurred to me to challenge the prevailing view.

But by the early 1980s, when the controversy arose over establishing a national holiday recognizing King's birthday and thereby celebrating his life, I was a young man and by then also a confirmed conservative. As most of the opposition to establishing the new holiday came from my side of the aisle, I was forced to reevaluate.

My initial conclusion was that he was not deserving. First, I thought we simply could not afford yet another paid day off. While I never did the math myself, I accepted the conclusions of those who did and there were many who argued this way. Second, as significant as King may have been, his importance to the country could never equal that of any of the Founders, most conspicuously Thomas Jefferson, for whom we had never established a formal national day of recognition. Finally, by then King's public biography was less sanitized than it had been previously and we could no longer pretend not to know about his, ahem, "woman" problem.

Nevertheless, Congress passed and President Reagan signed into law the bill establishing the third Monday of each January, close to his actual birthday of 15 January, as "Martin Luther King, Jr. Day". We've enjoyed the day off ever since.

Later, I changed my mind about all this. It seemed we could afford the holiday after all. Moreover, the ending of Jim Crow was an undeniably proud and watershed moment in our country's history and King was absolutely indispensable to its legal termination. Finally, at a personal level, I found the grace to forgive him his sexual indiscretions. I recognized that he was a flawed man just like all the other national heroes we celebrate and, more importantly, I recognized that he was also a flawed man just like me. Importantly, his moral lapses were chiefly private in nature and never resulted, so far as I'm aware, of any instances of public corruption

Still later I was to change my mind yet again, but not about the holiday or King's deserving of it. As I learned more and thought about it more, it occurred to me that what complicated King's legacy the most, as well as the entire Civil Rights Movement for which he was the single most important public face, was that after the passage of the famous Civil Rights Acts of the mid-1960s, he and the Movement he represented somehow morphed into becoming identified as well with the anti-Vietnam War effort, replete with its far-too-often inexcusably anti-American rhetoric.

In his famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" , King wrote movingly of "bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence." But later, after taking up the anti-war mantle, he once said in a speech that the US was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today." Sadly, language such as that sullied for many Americans, myself included, the otherwise wholly noble cause we had come to associate chiefly with the person of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the struggle he lead to secure equal rights for all Americans. Regrettably, this continues to complicate his legacy.

But even after acknowledging and weighing that complication, I still think he deserves his due and his day. On balance, America would be a much poorer place without him and his sacrifice and because of that I can say, without hesitation, Happy Birthday Dr. King!

No comments:

Post a Comment