Monday, July 6, 2009

The Day Hope Was Murdered on a Hotel Balcony

4 - 4 - 1968

On Friday we remember the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He has now been gone longer than he was alive. What is important to remember at this time about the man? The mystery surrounding his death? The suggestions of government conspiracy? There are better things to talk about....

"You may well ask: 'Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path?' You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored"
Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr.



In my MP3 player I have an eclectic mix of music to get me through the 40 minute bus ride from my home to downtown. Along with music, I have a collection of spoken word pieces and some inspiring speeches. One of these is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" and it is a speech that I never tire of hearing. We can see what was unequivocally bad then with the benefit of hindsight, what has changed by comparing the present to then, and even can apply these words to stimulate real discussion of where we still have to go. It is something that I think all Americans should be familiar with as we are with JFK's inauguration speech, the Gettysburg Address, or if I may be so bold, the Sermon on the Mount.

I am not trying to assign a sainthood or divinity to Dr. King. He was undeniably a typically flawed human being just like the rest of us. Sadly, the FBI pursued Dr. King through countless wiretaps and electronic surveillance. They were searching for anything that could ties him to the Communists, in an attempt to attach a powerful black leader to the nation's fiercest enemy. All they discovered was an intensely self-critical man that had a weakness the President who authorized the surveillance also suffered, the problem of infidelity. The relentless harassment that Dr. King received in terms of written threats and physical acts of violence possibly aided by the Federal investigation serve to further exemplify that this was a man who was larger than his faults and begs the question what scared the establishment so much about this man that they devoted so many resources to his downfall? For the might of the FBI all they could find was pillow talk and tabloid news that today's society relegates to the entertainment news. Was it a fear that he was a megalomaniacal leader looking to overturn the infrastructure of the government?

From his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:
"Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts. Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. Sooner or later all the people of the world will have to discover a way to live together in peace, and thereby transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood,"
and
"I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the "isness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "oughtness" that forever confronts him."
These quotes do not reflect the Anti-American ravings of a dangerous subversive. These powerful statements come from a man who so loves his country that he will castigate it with no hesitation when its actions go against the values we hold sacrosanct as a nation. These are the characteristics of the Patriot. Unlike the most commonly misunderstood idea of patriotism, unquestioning obedience to the government and the current agenda, Dr. King -- like Lincoln and the delegates of the Continental Congress -- held the national authority to task and ensured that our shared equality was equally honored.

Thus we remember the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, a particular milestone the man himself never achieved only 39 years of age when he was gunned down. Some believe his killers to be the great white establishment, an entire conspiracy network put into place to remove from power a man that was, according to an FBI Memo, "the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country." How tragic it would be if this great man was killed by a singular hateful and small-minded man. Truly a life as grand as his deserves an equally grand finish. The truth may be forever argued and never discovered. Now 40 years past his death, I wonder if it isn't one of the more irrelevant points in the discussion. What Dr King, I believe, would have us remember about his time on earth is what he said, and how we relate those words to our experiences in today's world. As we remember his passing -- when a champion of peace had his life taken in an act of cowardly violence -- let us reflect on the way this change was brought about and look at ourselves for the courage to continue to strive for a better cohesion of cultures.

Change was achieved and ground was made to level the racial playing field. We no longer have Bull Conner keeping his police officers at home and allowing his town to come under mob rule. The journey of the Freedom Riders ensured that nothing like that could ever happen again. This was a victory of the civil rights movement and Dr. King. Today's racism is more subtle and more subverted. There are no more great demonstrations of hate or intolerance, merely quiet acts that "hopefully" go unnoticed by the mainstream media. This is part of the reason that the racial discussion has become stagnant because it ultimately comes down to "It's better than the 60's, right?"

In times like these the quiet resolve of Dr. King can inspire us all to strive for the betterment of our national community and to have the courage to stand up in the face of corruption, ignorance, and violence without sullying one's own principles. The courage to take unpopular stances will be tested in no more difficult way than when attacked. Dr. King would instruct us to turn the other cheek as individuals or as a people. Today, he would be called soft, Un-American, and perhaps a traitor when considering the war on terror and the fervor behind it. During these times we remember not just the way Dr. King was taken from us, but what he did while he was here. His love of the people extended not to just the black community but the entire community. When we look at the life of the man and not just his death perhaps we of all colors and beliefs can emulate in some small way the character of a man who had the courage to peacefully stand up to an entire nation for the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness


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