What is the moral worth of that lost time for generations of Americans who were deprived of Martin Luther King Jr. walking the earth and working for a just and nonviolent world?
If he were here, what would he be thinking and saying about the Inaugural of a re-elected African-American president amid raging debates about gun rights and the fiscal costs of ministering to the poor? Would he still be as inspired as he was that night before his death in 1968?
“Like anybody,” Dr. King told followers in Memphis, “I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
Of the many gifts he bestowed on America, the most undervalued may be hope, an unyielding optimism transcending the kind of bitterness and hate that divides people and would eventually take his own life.
“The reports are that they are out to get me,” he told his parents before Memphis. “I have to go on with my work, I’m too deeply involved now to get out, it’s all too important. Sometimes I want to stop. Just go away somewhere and have some quiet days, finally, a quiet life with Coretta and the children. But it’s too late for that now. I have my path before me. I know what I have to do.”
That kind of selfless dedication is an invitation to see Dr. King as a saintly martyr, but he was also a mortal man with human failings that led J. Edgar Hoover to bug his hotel rooms and have anonymous letters sent urging him to commit suicide.
In Hoover's files were angry scrawls on press clippings. On Dr. King receiving the St. Francis peace medal from the Catholic Church, he wrote "this is disgusting." About the Nobel Prize: "King could well qualify for the 'top alley cat' prize!"
During his last years, despite gratitude to LBJ for pushing through a landmark Civil Rights law, Dr. King had turned against the Vietnam War and was actively opposing it, much to the President’s displeasure. His focus remained on faith, not politics.
In his eighties, Martin Luther King surely would be transcending all of today’s discord and reminding Americans of the nonviolent ethos that brought him national attention during the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama bus strike:
“If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”
In the Inaugural Address, Barack Obama will surely cite his debt to Dr. King and pay his legacy rhetorical homage, but he would be well-advised to remember as well the qualities of a man who endured beatings, jail and vilification for his beliefs without flinching from his faith.
Love Boehner, the Tea Party and the NRA if you can, Mr. President, but in opposing them don’t back down from as much of the gritty spirit of Martin Luther King as you can muster.
If he were still alive, he might be sitting behind you as you take the oath but on another weekend standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial making another “I Have a Dream” speech to remind Americans, “Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.”