In his 39 years on earth, Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to the oppressed. “Our weapon is love,” he told them, and he used it with stunning force.
At the dawn of TV, he brought into American homes images of peaceful protesters being beaten, driven with high-pressure hoses and arrested without fighting back. Their stoic suffering exposed racial hatred to a nation as never before.
His birthday this weekend will elicit the usual eulogies, grainy old videos of speeches and marches as well as tributes from the first African-American President and other nation leaders for whom he paved the way to political power, but they can barely revive the essence of the greatest figure of our time on earth.
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 the murder in 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 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 human life, not politics.
In 1966 Dr. King wrote for me about an 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 asked them to join Freedom Marches in Mississippi 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.”
Some of those young men Martin Luther King helped to grow up and away from their worst selves to exercise their civil rights must have been among the millions of Americans of all races to vote for Barack Obama in 2008.
In the past five years, they and we have learned that the old hatreds die hard, but bitterness was not in Martin Luther King’s character. If he were still here at 85, he might well remind us as he did toward the end of the brief life we celebrate:
“Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace. We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation that we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humaneness.”