Almost 40 years have passed since that terrible April day in 1968 in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. That’s one more year than the entire span of years he had on this earth. He’d be 79 today, had he lived, but he was only 39 when he died. Imagine all that this extraordinary man accomplished in such a short time. Our contemporary culture sometimes makes fun of “thirtysomethings” — Dr. King was a legend by the time he was a “thirtysomething” and he left a legacy that endures for all ages. (Photo from The King Center website.)
As I watched today’s news from the campaign trail and here in Washington, I found myself wondering, “What Would Martin Think?” about so many issues swirling through our public consciousness today.
In Atlanta today, Presidential Candidate Barack Obama gave a moving address at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dr. King’s own church. I wonder what Dr. King would think of this bright young man, a leader from a new generation, someone who, in so many ways, is the heir of Dr. King’s dream for equality, for justice, and for a nation in which leadership rests not with the color of one’s skin but the content of one’s character, to paraphrase a quotation from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.
In the last two weeks, I have wondered what Dr. King would think about the emergence of a struggle within the Democratic party over issues of race and gender as the first African American in the nation’s history to win a primary election runs against the first woman in the nation’s history to win a primary election. I suspect that Dr. King would be proud to have left a legacy that is a triumph for both race and gender, but that he would also urge caution in reminding the candidates and their supporters that millions of other Americans are just sitting on the sidelines biding their time, holding their votes, waiting to make a choice that also will include, ultimately, a Republican candidate as well. This winner of the Nobel Peace Prize would surely remind us that the election cannot be about what any candidate looks like; he would insist that the election must be about justice and peace, an end to war abroad and violence at home, remedies for our continuing domestic challenges of health care and education and equal economic opportunity.
Turning to the Metro section of the Washington Post today, I read about another heir of Dr. King, also from the new generation of African American leaders. Like Barack Obama, Mayor Adrian Fenty of Washington is a smart, ambitious leader who has stepped up to the considerable challenge of improving the government of the nation’s capital. Today’s story told the tale of how Mayor Fenty has angered city workers by firing six D.C. social workers for negligence in the deaths of four children in southeast Washington. I find myself wondering what Dr. King would say to Mayor Fenty in this time of challenge for his young administration as the Mayor’s effort to improve the schools and other public services meets increased opposition. I suspect that Dr. King would counsel Mayor Fenty to remain firm and disciplined, to hold fast in the face of pressure to relent in his dream of a better city — and yet, I also suspect that Dr. King would share some wisdom about knowing when to have a gentler touch as well. He might also say that the risk of public leadership is difficult, complicated, often unforgiving, and rarely a source of gratitude while the leader is moving ahead.
As I have followed the protracted struggle of our city to improve public education, I wonder what Dr. King would say to Chancellor Michelle Rhee as she moves ahead boldly with plans to improve schools — plans that have also angered some parents and teachers and members of the unions that work in the schools. Education is the ultimate civil right for all, but respecting the rights of workers is also important. Finding balance in the effort to make improvements is vital, but balance cannot be allowed to thwart progress. I am sure that Dr. King would remind leaders and parents and students alike that improving education in this city is an essential part of the unfinished agenda of the civil rights movement, and that movement still requires sacrifice.
I wish Dr. King were here today to come speak to our students at Trinity. Wouldn’t that be amazing? I wonder what he would think when he beheld Trinity’s campus today, a university where a majority of African American women proudly and zealously march toward their dreams of college degrees each day. Trinity today is part of Dr. King’s legacy, and also part of the still-unfolding dream. I suspect that he would challenge us directly to avoid self-satisfaction, to break through the hesitation that sometimes stops us from full engagement with the most critical justice issues of this moment in history. He would certainly call upon every student to become engaged with the current political moment, whatever candidate you support, whatever your point of view, Dr. King would surely call upon you to stand up and shout out for the change you can make in this world.
Let’s do it. In the week’s ahead, let’s live up to this precious legacy by standing up and speaking out more fervently than ever before for those causes that will restore peace and improve the possibility of justice for all.
See Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech