As they celebrate his finest moment fifty year ago, can Americans reckon the moral loss of his not walking the earth since then and working for a just and nonviolent world?
That he died so savagely and is now being resurrected on television are among the ironies of a brief life that dominated the past century.
“If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day,” a young minister told followers during the 1955 bus strike in Montgomery, Alabama, “don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate him. We must use the weapon of love.”
In the years to follow, with the emerging ubiquity of TV, he went beyond words and used the full power of body rhetoric, planning marches for the nightly news to elicit images of brutality against his people--guns, clubs, police dogs and high—pressure fire hoses--to win support for rights guaranteed by the Constitution.
"In the process of gaining our rightful place," Dr. King said at the Lincoln Memorial fifty years ago, "we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds….we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."
If he were here at the age of 84, what would he be thinking and saying about a re-elected African-American president trapped in raging debates about gun rights and the financial 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.
If he were still alive at 84, Martin Luther King surely would be transcending all of today’s hatred and discord to remind Americans of the nonviolent ethos that first brought him national attention, urging them to meet “physical force with soul force.”