Measuring (Up To) A King
Updated: Jan 21
Reflecting on the life and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2022, we can clearly see how his legacy is one of pursuing moral good - improvements in human and civil rights through non-violent protests. In doing so he embodied the spirit of democracy, and epitomized the American mythos of righteousness persevering against all odds.
But during his lifetime, by some measures, he was one of the most disliked figures in America. His actions were met with tremendous violence. Stabbed in the chest in Harlem at a book signing, hit in the head with a rock in Chicago during a demonstration, house bombed in Montgomery while his wife and daughter were home, and jailed 29 times.
His ideas were not always popular, even among the African-American community. "King’s allies in the National Urban League and the NAACP urged him to renounce his leadership of the civil rights movement before he destroyed it. King would not relent — “a time comes when silence is betrayal,” he responded. " (1) By looking at the whole picture of the man and the environment he was in, maybe we can better understand our place in history and our role in advancing the promises of democracy.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, he took up the banner of equity again with his "Poor People's Campaign." In this campaign Dr. King sought to bring social and economic justice through measures like guaranteed wages for the poor and the formation of labor unions. He also came to vocalize opposition to the Vietnam War. It is lesser remember that these causes in the last years of his life made him a figure of widespread disapproval. "A Harris Poll taken during King’s final year revealed that nearly three-quarters of the American people thought he was persona non grata, and almost 60% of his own people, black Americans, thought he was irrelevant." (2)
How did a man seen as one of the great leaders of the 20th century find so much opposition in his lifetime? The idea seems contrary to his legacy. I wonder, then, if a question we should be asking ourselves today as we look at pictures of marches, protests, and brutality is "who am I in that photo?" It is easy to imagine we would be in that vocal minority fighting for what, in the bird's eye view of history you, is right; however, we are much more likely the antagonizers and villains. The ones who, afraid of ideas and philosophies unfamiliar, shouted down the "other" who sought help to overcome their desperate truth. In the case of the Civil Rights Movement, the desperate truth of post Jim Crow oppression and widespread inequality.
It is more likely we are the snarling mouth, the angry eyes, and the jabbing finger. This self-realization is uncomfortable because we think evil is easy to spot. We can't imagine it can be so near us because we believe evil is illogical, unjustifiable, and illegal. We are convinced there is a natural repulsion to evil, and it cannot touch us without our consent. Unfortunately, this is not so. Evil sidles up to us unassumingly. It looks over our shoulder and whispers into our ear, siding with our most self-serving instincts. It justifies harm and obscures guilt; and it twists the words of man-made laws and holy books alike.
Recognizing ourselves as the antagonizers may seem degrading, but there is an opportunity here. We have a chance to do what was wrong yesterday right today. We have a chance to do right by Dr. King.
Are the promises of the constitution being delivered to all within the United States' jurisdiction? What benefits of our society are derived from the self-evident and unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? How long must we bear down this road before we attain decency and respect? The times we are experiencing now are much like those of the Civil Rights Movement era. There is a wonderful space race of sorts, while here on planet Earth social tensions are as high as ever. Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ issues, AAPI violence, and growing homelessness echo the same themes of civil and human rights. While we are vigilant of attacks by those who want to break up our communities, let us also be jealous of the thoughts in our mind and feelings in our heart. Recognize we have the capacity to wrong others, and that goodness is not always easy to see.
Dr. King wasn't a hero then, but he's a hero now. How will history judge our legacy? For the majority of us it is unlikely we will ever know. That is for another generation to decide. We can, however, recognize our worst nature so we can guard against its emergence. We have a chance to speak softly, to listen, and understand that history looks kindly on unity, compassion, and justice. Thank you, Dr. King, for your example.
These articles were read and referenced in my research for this piece: