For many Americans, the life of Martin Luther King Jr. means mostly that they get a day off from work or school, a day in which the banks are closed and the mail doesn’t come.
They may also know him as a one-dimensional icon of the civil rights movement, who repeatedly said “I have a dream,” during some famous speech a long time ago, and also said, “I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the promised land,” and then got shot.
Many of my college students know little more about him than that, though the black ones usually say he had something to do with winning their freedom.
To schoolchildren today, Martin Luther King is about as much in the past as George Washington. But I remember him as a flesh-and-blood human being. He had his weaknesses; he apparently committed plagiarism as a student. He may have been less than monogamous, none of which matters a bit. If you want a small snippet of flavor of who this brilliant man really was, forget the little snippets of old film on the news tonight.
Read his entire “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered less than a day before he was murdered.
Then read the “A Time to Break Silence” speech he gave exactly a year to the day before he was killed, a speech in which he broke with President Lyndon Johnson over the Vietnam War. LBJ was the best friend the Civil Rights movement ever had in the White House.
Many felt it was a suicidally crazy idea for King to take him on over Vietnam. But he did so because he had to, and he was right.
Believe it or not, MLK could easily still be alive today. Judge Damon Keith is still sitting on the United States Court of Appeals, and he was six and half when MLK was born. King, of course, has been gone a long time. For all he accomplished, he never lived to see his 40th birthday. Next year, it will have been half a century since he was blown away on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. Recently I found myself wondering this:
If King were alive today, would he be more happy that America has elected a black President twice – or more dismayed that America last year elected a man whose campaign seemed to say it was again all right to be openly racist?
How stunned would he be that our next President will be a man who came to a nearly all-white Michigan suburb last summer and contemptuously said black lives were horrible and they might as well vote for him because “what the hell do you have to lose?”
Speculation like that is meaningless. We have no idea exactly what a living Dr. King, molded by the events of the last half century, would think. But I do know this.
In his very last address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he said “Truth crushed to earth will rise again … Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right … whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
Those words might be worth thinking about, not only today.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's Senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.