Monday Smiles – MLK Edition

MLKLast November, Muri and I were in Virginia on the occasion of the Bat Mitzvah of the granddaughter of our friends, Rita and Barry.  One of our outings was a visit to the beautiful Martin Luther King memorial on the Tidal Basin near the National Mall.   A short walk away was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, which we also visited.  Both memorials featured quotes of the men they memorialized, cut into stone or cast into bronze.  One could not help but notice that though FDR’s words were momentous in American history, they were the words of a politician.  King’s words, on the other hand, spoke to all mankind, even when they were directed toward the immediate issue of segregation in the United States.  They possessed an eloquence and a universality that’s sadly missing in our divisive national dialog these days, in spite of the fact that they were delivered in the most divisive of times.

In 1964, I joined the first inter-racial fraternity at the University of Connecticut.  Think about that – at a public university, there had never been a fraternity that encouraged what we now call diversity.   It gave me a unique perspective on what was going on in the civil rights movement.  After-homework bull sessions sometimes turned into discussions of issues like the impact of Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King on the movement.  Sometimes, I was the only white guy in the room.   While that is nothing compared to the experience of those students who participated in the protests in the South, it still connects me to the civil rights movement of the sixties in a unique way.  This morning, remembering that it was Martin Luther King Day, I went online and read his most famous speech, the I Have a Dream Speech delivered on the mall of Washington to several hundred thousand people.  If you want to see what placed King above most of the leaders not only of his time but of any time, go read (and hear) that speech, here.   The only other man that comes to mind is Gandhi and of course, MLK was greatly influenced by Gandhi’s philosophy of passive resistance.

After reading, I wondered what Dr. King would think of where we’ve come if he were still among us.  I think he’d be pleased to see that segregation has virtually been eliminated in most of the country, even what we used to call the de facto variety.   I think he’d be astonished to see that a mere fifty years after his death we have our first African American (he’d have said Negro) president.  I think he’d be pleased that the pursuit of civil rights, whether for what he called people of color or for other minorities has been largely non-violent … and been fought as much in the statehouses of America as in the streets.  I think he’d be discouraged by the lack of progress against poverty and the degree to which the poor of all races remain trapped in ghettos of poverty.   Reading his words, though, I’m convinced he would say that to board the bus to prosperity, we need to listen to Bill Cosby as much as Jesse Jackson, that is, emphasize self-reliance as much as entitlement.  As a man who was mercilessly investigated and intimidated by the FBI, I think he’d be outraged by the degree to which the National Security Agency keeps track of its citizenry.  I think he’d be discouraged by the degree to which prejudice hides itself under the thin veil of political correctness and at how often a race card is played in place of honest dialog.  I think he’d be aghast at our lack of dialog.

Of course, this is only what one old white guy thinks Dr. King would think.  He was a visionary and he’d likely have thought so much more.  We’ll never know what he’d really have thought.  Meanwhile, I’m here to tell you that in fifty years we have come a long way as a nation from the terribly divisive times of the sixties.  And that’s a good reason to smile on this Monday, Martin Luther King Day.  Happy birthday, Dr. King.  Thank you.

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