Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Martin Luther King 1929-1968

March on Washington

This coming week, we will observe Martin Luther King Day. Since I am old enough to remember Dr King, I would like to add my own thoughts on his life and legacy.

I was in the US Army in Germany in 1968 when the news came that King had been assassinated in Memphis. While many American cities witnessed riots in the wake of King's death, many military posts overseas, including Germany, experienced violent outbreaks as well, albeit on a smaller scale. During that era, racial tensions in the Army were somewhat comparable to racial tensions at home in civilian life. Of course, attitudes were different in those days on many fronts. We were in the middle of the Civil Rights era. So many blacks were torn between following King's example of non-violence as opposed to other voices preaching a more militant and sometimes separatist approach. King's death caused many frustrated blacks to conclude that non-violence could accomplish nothing.

Today, four decades later, Martin Luther King is an icon of the Civil Rights Movement. In his life, he was one of the most gifted orators who ever spoke in the English language. Most remembered is his "I have a dream" speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Besides his speeches and marches, he was also somewhat controversial in some areas. Many suspected him of communist ties, pointing to certain leftist figures who were tied to his movement. Then, after his death, the stories came out about his womanizing-even though he was a married minister. For those (like me), who admired him and his courage, these aspects are a troubling part of his legacy.

I think however that his flaws do not detract from his accomplishments. His contributions-not only to African-Americans-but to the entire country cannot be understated. He was not the only courageous civil-rights figure. However, he was arguably the most inspirational to the country as a whole in convincing white America that injustices existed in our society-injustices that had to be rectified. Some may disagree with me, but I believe that unbelievable changes have been made in this country in the last 40 years-changes that no other society could have accomplished in so short a period of time.

Since King died in 1968, it is difficult to judge how his positions on the race issue would have evolved if he were alive today. Would he support affirmative action today? Would he be marching in tune with the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons? (Jackson was, in fact, an associate of King and was present at the assassination.) This is a tough question, and we can only speculate. However, I think we have to take him on his words up to the point he died. In the above-mentioned "I have a dream speech", one of the most famous lines was his dream that one day his children would be judged on the content of their character-not on the color of their skin. That brings us to a central question in black-white issues today. Have we reached the point that we can and should be color-blind? Or is race still so pervasive that it must be a factor in every decision we make? This seems to be a point of division between conservatives and liberals be they black or white.

I suppose that is a question each person has to ask himself/herself in his/her daily interactions across racial lines. As a (white) American who saw it all unfold in my lifetime, I think Dr King's words were not only true in his life, but are also applicable today.


Anonymous said...

Well said. We have come a long way, thanks to Dr. King. That doesn't mean that we're quite done and where we're supposed to be though.

Personally, I think that there might be hiccups here and there, but I'm optimistic about the future.

After all, you don't just take centuries of slavery and oppression and then just start over like nothing happened. Our country has some deep scars that may never completely disappear, but time will allow them to fade.

Gary Fouse said...

Agreed. As time passes, we become a more blended society. Intermarriage betwen whites/blacks, Asians and Hispanics will reduce the tensions. (I myself am married with a Hispanic) What is ultimately vital is that all ethnic groups are integrated socially and economically.

I guess my posting only implied it, but I do honor MLK even though I was disappoined by his personal lapses.