If he had survived to turn 81 today, what would Martin Luther King have made of an America in which the racial barrier to the White House has been overcome only to be followed a year later by hatreds and division throughout the nation?
In his dream for America, there was not only justice and equality but universal respect and love. "In the process of gaining our rightful place," Dr. King said at the Lincoln Memorial, "we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds….we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."
From the start in 1955, he was exceptional--a 26-year-old minister leading a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. He was harassed and arrested, a bomb exploded on his porch, but he rejected violence. “If we are trampled over every day,” he told his followers, “don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”
After reading this, I sent a reporter, William Peters, to Montgomery and, seven months later, while the boycott was still on, Redbook published the first national profile of Dr. King under the title, “Our Weapon Is Love.”
Months later, the Supreme Court struck down the Montgomery bus-segregation law, and the young minister was on his way to becoming the leader of a national movement.
In protests throughout the South, using nonviolence, King drew the support of whites as well as blacks. Like John F. Kennedy, he was a man of his time who understood the emerging importance of television. Unlike Kennedy, he went beyond words and used the full power of body rhetoric. He planned marches to elicit images of brutality against his people——guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses——for the evening news.
A decade later, when I asked him to contribute to a Christmas issue of McCalls, Dr. King wrote not about himself but about the apartment he had rented in Chicago’s slums to connect with gang members: “I was shocked at the venom they poured out against the world.”
He had asked them to join Mississippi Freedom Marches, and they did in carloads, where “they were to be attacked by tear gas. They were to protect women and children with no other weapons but their own bodies…..
“They learned in Mississippi and returned to teach in Chicago the beautiful lesson of acting against evil by renouncing force...
“And in Chicago the test was sterner. These marchers endured not only the filthiest kind of verbal abuse but also barrages of rocks and sticks and eggs and cherry bombs...
“It was through the Chicago marches that our promise to them—that nonviolence achieves results--was redeemed and their hopes for a better life rekindled, For they saw that a humane police force, in contrast to police in Mississippi, could defend the exercise of Constitutional rights as well as enforce the law in the ghetto.”
Almost half a century later, a young man from those Chicago streets is in the White House and, as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, Barack Obama acknowledged the ironies of his connection to Martin Luther King as he defended the "just wars" over which he is presiding: "As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak--nothing passive, nothing naïve--in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King."
If he were still alive, Martin Luther King would be a rebuke to Obama, and us all, for failing to create a world of justice and compassion. He certainly would be no Billy Graham or Rick Warren, ministering to the mighty and basking in their glow, although he might have agreed to deliver the benediction at Obama's inaugural with the sentiments that his contemporary Joseph Lowery expressed:
"Yes, we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. And while we have sown the seeds of greed--the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other."