Because he was taken from us just before my first birthday, what I know about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. comes from his speeches and writing. His words provide a stark contrast to so many activists and politicians in today’s polarized political climate.
Despite his attempts to speak from a love of God, love of country, and love for mankind, he was not a unifying figure because Americans in the 1960s were sharply at odds over the Vietnam War and racial strife.
King spoke in terms that were dear to most every American and which necessarily made many uncomfortable. He pointed out the obvious mistreatment of blacks in an America that perceived this injustice but too often preferred to do little to correct it.
He spoke a language that forced Americans to wrestle with the inconsistency between what they knew to be right and the wrongs that persisted. While King’s words didn’t immediately persuade, they were a constant irritation, like a pebble in a shoe, that would eventually demand action.
King was different from many of today’s social justice activists in three very conspicuous ways: He was a minister of the Gospel who loved God and preached Jesus Christ as his Savior. He loved America and the ideals upon which it was founded. He showed love toward his adversaries rather than bitterness and hatred.
“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate (someone) myself,” he said in his American Dream sermon in August 1965. “Hate does something to the soul. . . . The man who hates can’t think straight. . . .
“I know that Jesus is right, that love is the way. And this is why John said, “God is love,” so that he who hates does not know God, but he who loves at that moment has the key that opens the door.”
He was wary of forces “of bitterness and hatred” that “come perilously close to advocating violence,” naming specifically the emerging Nation of Islam.
“It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incurable devil,” he wrote. “There is a more excellent way, of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle.”
King embraced America’s heritage and our founding fathers.
“When the architects of our Republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir,” he said in his “I Have A Dream” speech on July 4, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial.
He understood that “America has given the Negro people a bad check,” but “we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.” Rather than repudiate the founders for their imperfection, he exalted them for their vision and challenged his fellow Americans to fulfill it.
The Declaration of Independence, he said, expressed “a great dream” because “it doesn’t say ‘some men’ (are created equal), it says ‘all men.’”
“That dream goes on to say another thing that ultimately distinguishes our nation and our form of government from any totalitarian system in the world. It says that each of us has certain basic rights that are neither derived from or conferred by the state. . . . They are God-given, gifts from His hands.
“Never before in the history of the world has a sociopolitical document expressed in such profound, eloquent, and unequivocal language the dignity and the worth of human personality.”
King wanted to end Jim Crow segregation, but not so racial groups could re-segregate themselves as some want today.
“One day, here in America,” he said, “I hope that we will become one big family of Americans. Not white Americans, not black Americans, not Jewish or Gentile Americans, not Irish or Italian Americans, not Mexican Americans, not Puerto Rican Americans, but just Americans.
“One big family of Americans.”
That’s a dream America needs today, as much as it did fifty years ago.