The Common Good

The Legacy of Martin Luther King: Making Real the Promises of Democracy

[Editor's Note: In anticipation of the anniversary of the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, God's Politics will feature a series of posts on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Continue to check the blog for more reflections each day this week.]

For a variety of personal and political reasons, I have continually chosen to take seriously the deep wisdom shared in 1968 by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Martin Luther King's most valued friends, teachers, and co-workers. Just months before King's assassination Heschel introduced his dear brother, comrade, and leader to a gathering of rabbis with this unequivocal statement: "The whole future of America will depend on the impact and influence of Dr. King."

Those words come alive for me whenever I find us Americans trying -- consciously or otherwise -- to lighten the impact and re-make in our own image the tough meaning of this demanding pastor and prophet, avoiding or ignoring the powerful challenges King continues to present to us all.

Nowhere is this escapist process more evident than in our Sunday School-type approach to the iconic "I Have a Dream" speech -- beginning with our choosing to forget that it was delivered in a controversial setting identified as a "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Perhaps even more important is what we have determined to ignore (and refuse to teach) from the early, theme-setting portion of the speech. There, remembering the dozens of hard struggles for racial justice that were currently raging across the country, symbolized by the police attack dogs, the battering fire hoses, and the youth-led nonviolent determination of Birmingham, King spoke for the hundreds of thousands of mostly black marchers on the mall, and their significant number of white allies gathered at the time, when he declared that "Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy."

For those of us who teach this speech, where might we go with our students if we asked them, and ourselves, what King could have meant by "the promises of democracy," and what could we mean now? -- especially as we look closely in 2010 at our re-segregated, underfunded, and often directionless public schools, at our black and brown-filled private prisons, at our still deeply segregated residential communities, our never-ending wars, and their officially sanctioned pillage from the funds required to heal the starkly rising inequalities of our nation, to meet the desperate needs of our poorest children and our wounded mother earth.

Refusing to lighten up in that early, now neglected part of the speech, encouraged by thousands of "amens," "yes, Lords," and continuing rounds of applause from the sweltering, fully engaged crowd, King said, "1963 is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual." Promising no easy, painless victories for democracy, King drove on to predict "There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwind of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges." At the same time, true to his own best spiritual and social convictions concerning the redemptive power of creative, nonviolent struggle, King called on all who were committed to a new America to "rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force."

To forget or avoid (or fail to teach) these words of King is to miss some of the deepest understanding of what Rabbi Heschel meant by "the impact and influence" of this man who loved us so fully and who therefore insisted that we face ourselves and determine to deepen the continuing, absolutely necessary struggle to open our best possibilities for us all, and for our children.

Vincent G. Harding, professor emeritus at Iliff School of Theology and co-founder of Veterans of Hope Project, is a historian, author, and activist.

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