Had he not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1968, Martin Luther King would have been 83 this week.
For those of us old enough to remember, MLK was in his prime when this nation was racially divided, blacks against whites, gender divided, men against women, age divided, old against young, divided with rich against poor and divided by the politics of war by those in favor of the Vietnam conflict and the rising wave of those against it.
When MLK died, the nation was alive with a social revolution and radical ideas about where this nation ought to go abounded.
When he was born, he came of age in a racist society.
One thing is clear after all these years – the non-violent war against racial bigotry MLK began back in the 1950’s helped to give shape and form to our society today – a society racially mixed but largely at ease with itself despite the lingering difficulties of bridging the race gap by all of us no matter what color we are or what nation we come from or what religion we practice.
How we are as a nation today is what counts and when it mattered, when nearly everything about American democracy and our political and legal justice system was hanging in the balance, MLK’s statement about racism wasn’t only heard. It changed the nation.
America today is a much better place than it was when black people and people of color in general were treated as second class citizens. The separate but equal doctrine of the US Constitution went by the wayside because of efforts like MLK’s.
It is incomprehensible for young people today to imagine a nation fancying itself as the greatest nation in the world forcing black people to ride on the back of the bus or to serve their nation in separate, racially segregated battle groups. Until the end of the 1960’s, government jobs, housing, public schools, universities and even cemeteries were given only to whites who governed by segregationist rules and regulations written and unwritten. Even in death black Americans were subjected to segregation until the nation changed.
When the transformation came, it was extraordinary.
MLK’s historic 1964 speech moved the nation.
In front of 200,000 who gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for a march on Washington, King captivated the nation with his brilliant words delivered with the voice and verve of a Southern country preacher.
“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down at the table of brotherhood,” he said.
The year before that historic moment, MLK wrote the following from a jail cell in Alabama.
“We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
It is hardly a coincidence that America’s first black president, Barack Obama and his wife attended church Saturday morning in honor of King’s birth.
The transition isn’t yet complete in this nation. Racism hasn’t disappeared but at least every man and women in this nation has the protection of our legal justice system and the worst elements of racism have been vetted from this nation.
We are down on ourselves about the economy. We should feel exalted that so many have done so much to honor the differences we share and that color and race among our youngest people are largely matters unknown.
We recall with dignity and honor the memory of Martin Luther King on the occasion of his birthday.