Two score and five years ago today Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It was, without question, one of the darkest moments in American history -- an earth shattering event that provoked riots and outrage in over 100 American cities. That a brave, non-violent spokesman for peace and equality could be gunned down in such a horrific manner will forever be seared into the nation’s collective memory. But so, too, will his “enduring legacy,” a point RNC Chairman Reince Priebus movingly captured in his column today:
Today his monument stands on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., not far from the Lincoln Memorial where he shared his dream with the nation. Millions of visitors from across the country and around the world pass by and are given the chance to reflect on his life.
But the truest testament to his influence is not etched in stone. No, the real measure of his work is that America is today a better place thanks to him. Segregation is but a memory. Discrimination is outlawed. Racism is recognized as the evil that it is.
Yet there is always work left to be done. The task of forming a ‘more perfect union’ is never finished. So the best way to pay tribute to Dr. King is to continue to stand for liberty, equal opportunity, and justice for all–just as he did.
And how bravely he stood. It can be easy to forget the resistance he faced–the hate, the violence, the arrests. Twenty-nine times he went to jail. But he faced it all calmly, resolutely and with kindness, insisting on meeting hate with love, violence with peace.
He once noted, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?’” Dr. King could answer that question without hesitation. He helped America live up to its ideals.
America would be a vastly different place without leaders like Dr. King and others who risked everything to bring about real, lasting changes to American race relations. And of course, his “I Have a Dream” oration -- delivered fifty years ago this summer -- still inspires, reminding us how one man’s words could expose racism in all its forms, and pave the way for what can only be described as a “new birth of freedom” in the United States. From that famous speech:
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.
We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.
We live in an age when the word “racist” is thrown around needlessly and maliciously to win political arguments. But that pejorative is a loaded term. It was historically used, I think, to describe people who genuinely believed that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites, and could never co-exist peacefully in the United States with other races because of their “inherent” differences. Now, sadly, the word “racist” is used to denigrate people of good faith who happen to have legitimate disagreements over issues of public policy. How sad.
The anniversary of Dr. King’s death reminds us that “drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred” -- that is, demonizing one’s opponents for political gain -- is not a form of persuasion. The Civil Rights Movement was successful, in part, not because King and his supporters used veiled threats or condoned violence to win their much-deserved citizenship rights, but because they made moral, reasoned arguments deeply rooted in America’s founding principles. Perhaps on this important day, then, as we honor King’s life and legacy, members of both parties would do well to remember that.