Martin Luther King Jr.
On Monday the country pauses for the holiday celebrating the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King, the famed civil rights leader who was killed in 1968 by an assassin’s bullet.
King was known as much for his fiery oratory as for his preaching of nonviolence. There is much to be gleaned from his life and his words, and much that can be applied to finding comfort and even some solutions in the modern day troubles we face as a country. First, a brief historical perspective.
The United States in the 1960s were anything but.
The country was fractured, split along many fault lines. The Deep South was undergoing massive change, cleaved open by the civil rights movement and the fight against the injustice of institutional racism. The Vietnam War had also split the country, causing unrest on college campuses and doubt about why young men were being sent off to war for a cause that many didn’t subscribe to. The war had caused deep divides, not just between generations but also between economic strata, as families with means were able to take advantage of college deferrals so their sons could avoid the war.
Those divisions were so deep, and the fissures so broad, that for many at the time it seemed the country might break apart again, as it had 100 years before during the Civil War. Eventually, the country managed to come together and the cracks either healed or scabbed over. But scar tissue remains, and some of those old wounds have been opened again.
Today, there are many challenges that need to be faced head on. Racism, while not as overt as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, still exists in this country. Movements have begun, like Black Lives Matter and football players taking a knee during the national anthem, that try to shed light on the racial injustice many still see in our society. Their reasons are varied and well documented, and to many people are very legitimate.
King’s words can certainly be applied to those and other movements that seek to end racism.
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
Class separation is another challenge, as more and more wealth gets pushed to the top 1%. King, while more known for his work on civil rights, was deeply concerned about the disparity of wealth as well.
“Capitalism does not permit an even flow of economic resources. With this system, a privileged few are rich beyond conscience, and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. That’s the way the system works. And since we know that the system will not change the rules, we are going to have to change the system.”
How we as a country face these current challenges will go a long way toward defining what kind of country the United States will continue to be. Will we become more and more fractured, or will people come to accept people with different skin color, different backgrounds, different economic means, different religions, and different ideas?
King would have wanted the United States to be that kind of tolerant society. As we celebrate his life and his words this weekend, it seems incumbent on each of us to practice his preaching in everyday life.
“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”