A reader writes, "I'd like your take on the enduring value of MLK's contributions because I don't think they're fully understood or appreciated. Falling on inauguration day is (to me) poetic."
Yes, the second inauguration of our first African-American president is falling on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Most Americans, even black Americans, know little of King or the civil rights era. A better understanding can be gained by reading all three volumes of Taylor Branch's magisterial examination of America in the King years. And reading King's collected speeches and writings. Otherwise, this holiday remains a proxy for feel-good idiocy based on a few lines of the "dream speech," a magnificent piece of rhetoric but one that barely grazes the surface of the man and his message.
King was not alone in killing Jim Crow and achieving basic rights for all Americans in the 1960s. Students and sharecroppers seeking to register blacks or integrate buses and lunch counters were bludgeoned and sometimes killed by racist Southern cops and white mobs. Among the survivors is Rep. John Lewis, who was a young organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and one of the Freedom Riders. Every American should know the names of such giants as Thurgood Marshall, James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Fred Shuttlesworth, A. Phillip Randolph, Ralph Abernathy and Whitney Young. The little girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. Lyndon Johnson, willing to lose the South to the Democratic Party (for a generation, he thought) in order to push through civil-rights legislation. All of these and more are the shoulders on which President Obama stands. But King, probably rightly, looms largest in the collective memory. Or at least a version of King.
I can add little to the many articles and reflections that one can find marking this day, the achievement of greater opportunity, a black middle class and the end of de jure segregation.
Except for the suggestion that, had he not been martyred, Martin Luther King Jr. would be unsatisfied with today's America. Most who know something of King beyond the "dream" lines prefer to remember the MLK of the Montgomery bus boycott, the march on Washington and nonviolence. They are less comfortable with the MLK who came out in opposition to the Vietnam War, spoke out forcefully against excessive military spending instead of using our resources to lift up all Americans, the King who embraced the Poor People's Campaign for social and economic justice. This is an MLK, who emerged in the years before his assassination, who even lost substantial support among African-Americans at the time.
One needn't ask what he would think of our wars, one of which is on track to be the longest in American history. The drone strikes carried out by President Obama that invariably kill innocents. Spending a trillion dollars a year on defense and "national security" while also discussing, not whether, but how best to cut the social safety net. Gitmo and torture enshrined as national policy, as well as the extra-judicial killing of American citizens. One in three black men can expect to go to prison some time in his life, facing sentences far harsher than those given to whites for the same crimes. Schools as segregated as before Brown vs. Board of Education and the ones serving children of color likely to be inferior. Historic and growing income inequality. Far from being a "post-racial" society, we saw President Obama elected without a majority of white votes. Polls show whites' negative opinion of blacks actually increased over Obama's term. American exceptionalism, indeed.
King would not approve of what has become of the Republican Party, for which his father reliably voted — and which supplied the critical votes to pass civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. He would be shocked that after all this time a state would enact the cruel, hypocritical and racist policies of Arizona.
The sentiment would no doubt be returned. Most Americans would not be comfortable with the man who said, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on social uplift if approaching spiritual doom." Most wouldn't want to live the implications of our "web of mutuality" encompassing all of God's children.
But King was a minister of the Gospel who believed that all might be redeemed (if they were willing to repent and walk a different path). "The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." King used this quote from the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker so often that it is attributed to him. But he believed it and so do I. For now, however, America lacks the (often feuding) giants and armies of protesters that brought about the progress that we now take for granted. If anything, we face a retrograde move into darkness, ignorance and hate.
Best to leave with the full speech King gave the night before he was shot dead. It is one of his best and most moving. One of his most searchingly provocative. It is speaking to us today with urgent relevance, whether we want to listen or not.