Today is the Martin Luther King holiday and even in politically tumultuous 2019, I submit to you that the spirit of Dr. King is alive. We are not going back to the 1960s in racial relations.
Most of us are familiar with the history. The “I Have a Dream” speech was a galvanizing moment of the civil rights struggle. The audacious dream delivered at the feet of the Lincoln Memorial brought public agreement to the movement and eventually helped secure the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Through the rosy-colored glasses of history, we pretend that the words of this speech were widely accepted. The truth is that even after the passage of the civil rights legislation, the message of justice flowing like a river was unwelcome in most parts of the United States.
We may need to take off the rosy-colored glasses. During the ’60s as Dr. King continued to challenge our government and citizens to live up to the ideals of the Constitution, racial equality was his least controversial message. The more that he dealt with the realities of our institutions, media and government, the more controversial the messages that he delivered became.
In 1967, years after the triumph of the March on Washington, King would tell NBC News correspondent Sander Vanocur that the dream had “turned into a nightmare.” In a rarely viewed TV interview, MLK told the correspondent that the “old optimism” of the civil rights movement was “a little superficial.”
As if that wasn’t shocking enough, he continued to say that he felt that the dream needed to be tempered with “a solid realism.” Finally in reference to his evolving dream, King spoke bluntly about what he called the “difficult days ahead.”
His speeches changed as well. MLK’s last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” outlines a vision of a changing America. Dr. King called for unity and peace instead of war. He told his followers to demand economic prosperity over their present poverty.
He asked everyone regardless of race to promote fairness. King also called for his followers to take nonviolent action, refusing the talk of armed revolution floating in some circles.
Let’s revisit some of those rarely read words; “…for years now, we have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today.”
Yet even through through his “nightmare”, Dr. King still told us love was the only way to conquer hate. “We aren’t engaged in any negative protest and in any negative arguments with anybody. We are saying that we are determined to be men.... We are saying — We are saying that we are God’s children.”
In this era of f- — your feelings, vulgar protest signs, and lack of courtesy in both political parties, it is a relief to read positive words. We need the reminder that protest can be passionate and appropriate. We need to treat all as valuable, even those who disagree with us. The example of how to do this is before us. After years of betrayal, disappointment, and exposure to danger, MLK still believed that the change America needed could be achieved. His vision still saw nonviolence, legal effort, economic action as ways to access the best parts of the existing system. He still sought fulfillment of the American dream for everyone.
In a stunning turnaround from 1963, today these speeches are admired worldwide. Millions who agree stand with the man and his words. The spirit of MLK is alive and growing.
On this holiday, let us consider these words, “Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”