Martin Luther King Day is unique among American holidays in that it honors the one American who delivered the fulfillment of a core value expressed in the country’s founding Declaration of Independence in 1776.
The declaration’s self-evident truth “that all men are created equal,” simply wasn’t realized when the U.S. Constitution was ratified 14 years after the declaration.
The institution of slavery that had become woven into the economic fabric of Southern states, did not die out of its accord as the framers of Constitution anticipated. That evil could only be eradicated by a Civil War — one that would cost the nation about 620,000 men, a greater sacrifice than what the U.S. lost in all the subsequent wars combined, including two World Wars, and the Korean, Vietnamese and three Middle Eastern wars.
Unfortunately, even after the Civil War with all slaves being freed in the spring of 1865, equality was not realized. Instead, slavery’s end marked the beginning of almost another century of institutional prejudice against blacks, particularly in America’s Southern states.
When King came of age in Atlanta in the 1940s, Jim Crow laws mandated racial segregation in public facilities and transportation, including the coaches of interstate trains and buses, public schools, public places, local buses, restaurants, public bathrooms, and even drinking fountains. King was clearly gifted, graduating from Morehouse College with a B.A. in 1948, when he was just 19. He chose to follow in his father’s footsteps in the ministry and earned a theology doctorate from Boston University. After marrying Coretta Scott, he began full-time pastorship in 1954 at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
When Rosa Parks, secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP came to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to learn about nonviolent resistance, King had no idea what was about to happen. Only four days later Parks would stand firm against the humiliation of discrimination — refusing to give up her public bus seat to a white passenger. That led to her arrest and triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, a nonviolent action that would last 381 days, until the Supreme Court declared the city’s segregationist laws unconstitutional.
The Montgomery bus boycott was a catalyst for a restoration of dignity and minority rights throughout the South, and King was thrust into a leadership role, helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In cities throughout the South, King championed minority rights, marching for labor and voting rights, conducting sit-ins, and prayer vigils.
He was recognized as man of the year by Time Magazine and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. But the actions that got him accolades from some also brought him threats, beatings, bombings and assassination attempts from other people resisting change. Through it all, King strived to lead by example of forgiveness, tolerance and nonviolence — and would go to jail 29 times to advance the cause of freedom and human dignity, ultimately giving his life to an assassin’s bullet in 1968.
The life of Martin Luther King Jr. was not without controversy, such as his plagiarizing others’ words and allowing Communists or former Communists such as Stanley Levison and Jack O’Dell into his inner circle and leadership roles of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
What was true throughout biblical history remains true. And that is that God’s work has often been carried out by flawed people.
In King’s most famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on August 28, 1963, it was as if the Almighty was calling America to rise up and fulfill its spiritual destiny declared 200 years earlier in the Declaration of Independence — a self-evident truth “that all men are created equal…” where “people will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King Day has become one of America’s great holidays, unique in beckoning us all to live by honorable principles that include tolerance and empathy.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute in Seattle and managing partner at RemingtonRand, a legal recruiting consultancy. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.