I was 11 years old when President Reagan signed the law making this Monday in January a celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. However, three years would pass before the day was nationally observed for the first time – January 20, 1986. The idea had been discussed and debated since shortly after Dr. King’s death in 1968. It is still amazing that it only took 18 years to recognize the weight of his work on the shaping of American society, despite never having served in political office, military leadership, business and industry, or higher education. He was a preacher from Atlanta, and man… could he preach.
In my state during that time (and many other states), the MLK holiday was shared with another important (Southern) American hero, General Robert E. Lee. I think it is fair to say that the only Jesus and Elvis are loved more in the south than the Confederate General who had been dead for 113 years by the time President Reagan signed that bill. Yet, these two Southern gentlemen are tied together because of the proximity of their January birthdate.
Their birth month may be all they had in common.
– One of them was trying to change America through cultural renaissance. The other was trying to reject the American ideal in holding onto a cultural legacy.
– One staked his life and his career on state’s rights. The other died for his sermons on civil rights.
– One was the leader of a failed secession. The other was a champion for a movement that has overthrown legalized hate and discrimination.
– One could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives by not fighting. The other fought so millions of men/women like him could have lives with more rights, better freedoms, and equal justice.
– One marched with men carrying guns going into battle to kill other men. The other marched in peace appealing to men of power in his day and hoping for transformation.
– One was a brilliant and inspirational American icon that should be a hero to all people. The other was Robert E. Lee.
I am not awed by the idea of Martin Luther King. I am thankful that he was born and that in his life he was given the opportunity to be so effective. I am grateful that he brought the dialogue about race into American life so that my children were born believing it to be normal that people of all color are equal in word and in deeds. Dr. King’s 39 years were poured out for others so that minorities in this country could be free to pursue their dreams (not to mention basic rights) and so that majorities could benefit from the brilliance and beauty of what minorities represent as a people. Together, with all things and all people considered equal, we are better as a nation. Only the ignorant reject that. It is not “them” or “they.” It is “us” and “we.” We are “one nation” with “liberty and justice for all.”
This year has shown that things are not perfect. Race is still a very divisive issue in our country and that makes me sad. The granting of civil rights to people of color (red, yellow, black, brown) was only half of the necessary change in the vision of Dr. King. His real hope and dream was not for politics to produce new rights and freedoms, but for brotherly love to propel everyone to consider each other as brothers/sisters and act accordingly. That means that I would treat my neighbors like I would treat or want my little brother treated (with respect, dignity, equality). Brotherly love is a better way to live than the political preference or brute force of majority rule. We clearly have a long way to go for that part of the dream to be realized, but at least we know where to start.
If I see Dr. King as anything else besides my brother, I am wrong. He was truly a great preacher, leader, American, and many other qualifiers of greatness, but his being my brother makes his accomplishments my accomplishments. While not being “with him” in ethnicity or experience, I am forever “with him” in spirit and support. His dreams are my dreams. His hopes are my hopes. His frustrations are my frustrations. His loss is my loss. His day is my day.
And most importantly, I think, his Father is my Father.