Updated: Mar 10
When I think about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I ponder what he means to me: a white, male, American living in 2023. Growing up, I was treated to what I would call a grade school version of King and his legacy. The man who loomed so large in the history of our country during the 1950s and 1960s had gone through an apotheosis. He had become larger than life. While this cemented his status as one of the great leaders of our time, it had the side effect of reducing him to a symbolic, monolithic icon. We grade schoolers revered him according to the national hagiography, reminding ourselves once a year of this figure of history. The highlights of the history (the Montgomery bus boycott, Birmingham sit-ins, the march on Washington, his tragic death) were probably ingrained in most of us, though the richer details were lost. Also instilled was the general notion of racial equality as an ideal to be pursued. In the early 1990s, it was implied by our educators that racial equality was a state we had achieved or arrived at, with the help of those like Dr. King. Despite significant progress, this sadly couldn’t be further from the truth.
In high school I picked up King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail, which he scrawled in the margins of a newspaper with an urgency that leaps off the pages. I don’t remember exactly what impelled me to read that. I don’t think it was part of our school curriculum. I think my father recommended it. Absent a definite memory, I will credit him with the recommendation. I will also credit my father with instilling the idea of connectedness in me. This is the notion that a bond of humanity links us. As long as humans suffer, we cannot delude ourselves that our own comfort justifies complacency.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
As King writes, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
In grade school, the history was presented so reductively: It was obvious that segregation was wrong. King and others faced down the dogs and fire hoses until the wrong was righted. The Letter From Birmingham Jail highlights the fact that King’s approach was controversial even among those who opposed segregation. The letter itself is a response to criticism from other church leaders who disagreed with his nonviolent ‘direct action’ approach. King was not willing to wait as others counseled patience: “We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”
The time is always ripe to do right
I went to college in Washington, DC, making my home for four years in the same place where King delivered his epic ‘I have a dream’ speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Then, as now, King has always come to mind any time I gaze out at the Washington Monument over the reflecting pool. I re-watched the speech this weekend. It brought tears to my eyes. It is full of gems, even aside from the more famous parts.
“Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”
He talks about 1963 being not an end but a beginning. How right he was, despite all that he and his fellow freedom workers accomplished.
“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”
This wisdom is so widely applicable. Any sip from the cup of bitterness and hatred is self-consuming and, ultimately, self-defeating. Anger is natural but we don't have to indulge in hate. As Master Yoda says, “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Returning to King: “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline.”
This wisdom can be applied to other contexts as well, from the momentous to the mundane. Struggling with kids misbehaving? How does it look to conduct that struggle with dignity and discipline?
I visited Atlanta in 2011, making a brief pilgrimage to King’s tomb. Although the site was perfectly nice, it did seem devoid of humanity, with its expanse of brick and sterile water features. It recalled for me the grade school, monolithic iconography again.
For some reason, again I’m not sure exactly why, I picked up Why We Can’t Wait in the fall of 2017. I guess I remembered liking the Letter from Birmingham Jail, which is nested in this work, and figured I would read the whole thing. I was again brought to tears by several passages. I’m not sure why this keeps happening to me, but it’s not because of his tragic death. And it happens even if I revisit a speech or passage I’ve already heard or read. Perhaps the purity of the ideas is so searing that I find it heartbreaking to view it against the backdrop of the way African Americans are currently treated in the United States.
When you’re swimming downstream with the current sweeping you along, it’s hard to notice the boost. As a heterosexual white male American, I’m taking a learner’s mindset approach to the whole concept of racial justice in America.
I hope we can realize King’s dream:
“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”