I don’t really have much of anything to add to what I wrote about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a year ago. So I’ll just repost it with a reiterated hope that all readers find some time today to actually read some of what Dr. King said and wrote.
There will be a natural tendency this year to conflate the annual commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., with the inauguration of Barack Obama. Without question, Obama’s election represented a milestone in the racial saga of the United States, and had he lived until now, no one would have been more pleased, and perhaps astonished, by this development than King himself. (It is a bit startling to realize that Martin Luther King was born just 80 years ago, and might today still be an active and respected voice–perhaps an Inaugural prayer-leader?–had he been permitted to live).
But it’s important to maintain the integrity of King’s legacy, which was reflected in Obama’s election, but hardly fulfilled.
King represented, after all, a perpetual challenge to the people of the United States that is always necessary, but can never be fully met: to live up completely to the civic and religious values nearly all of us claim to cherish.
He held up a mirror to the Americans of his time, and demanded they take a close look at themselves according to their own professed standards. Many refused, and some never forgave him for the audacity of the demand itself. But although Jim Crow finally died, and we now have an African-American president, the demand remains as provocative and essential as ever.
So take some time today, if you can, to read or re-read Letter From a Birmingham Jail, or, if you are a Christian, Paul’s Letter to American Christians. They haven’t lost their power despite the passage of years. And they still serve as a reminder of the fundamental radicalism of the Declaration of Independence, and of the Gospels.
All too many people think of MLK as merely a historical figure, and of his commemorative day as a tribute to the Civil Rights movement that culminated before King’s death. For such people, the inauguration of Barack Obama tomorrow will become just another reason to consign King and his mission to the history books. But if you actually read him or listen to him, it becomes clear that his message is as fresh and relevant–and radical–as ever.