The Common Good

Reclaiming Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy: Rejecting the Cup of Bitterness of Hate

Last weekend, the nation had an opportunity to reflect, commemorate, and celebrate the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s iconic "I Have a Dream" speech. Even though 47 years have passed since that watershed moment in the Civil Rights movement, the words of that speech and the images of that event remain powerful and poignant.

Of course, there is much to herald about Dr. King's speech. There have been countless analyses of that speech and what it represents in history and for our nation's democracy, including many notable and inspiring ones on this very blog. In recently rereading the speech, I found myself drawn to a section of the address -- near the beginning -- that is not often discussed as much as Dr. King's roaring stanzas at the end. During this part, he implores African-Americans -- many of whom were beaten, abused, and harassed, and/or lived in places where Jim Crow reigned supreme -- to continue to have patience and to continue to believe that the method of peaceful civil disobedience he advocated would ultimately be successful. He told the crowd:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

In the face of such brutal and hateful opposition, Dr. King urges his followers to not respond in kind. Rather, he encourages them to resist the impulse to fight back with physical violence, but instead to act with "dignity and discipline." In short, he asks them to "turn the other cheek." But he doesn't stop there. He goes on to remind the African-American community to not "distrust all white people," but to remember the multiracial dimension of the crowd that assembled, to realize that many people, of all races and backgrounds, sacrificed their lives and freedoms so that this nation's democratic promises could truly be enjoyed by all. In his words -- and through his life more broadly -- Dr. King reminded the crowd the power that a peaceful, multicultural movement had already played in fundamentally altering the course of this country's history, and that if they continued on in that path, greater changes were on the way.

As a society, we would do well to remember these exhortations from Dr. King. These days far too many of us are drinking, by the mouthful it seems, from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We have let spiteful political rhetoric poison our discussions on both the national and local levels. As the tensions over the "Ground Zero mosque" demonstrate, far too many people distrust continue to judge those around them by the color of their skin (or their religious beliefs) rather than the content of their character. But as Dr. King made clear, we can -- and we must -- reject such attitudes and perspectives.

Towards the end of this section of the speech, Dr. King tells his audience: "We cannot walk alone." Now, more than ever, we need to remember that call of unity and common destiny. We need to remind ourselves that despite the plethora of things that separate us, there are so many more that bind us together.

portrait-johnathan-smithJohnathan Smith is a New York-based lawyer. He also serves as a youth minister at Gethsemane Baptist Church.

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