About twenty years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of the famous 17th philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon. I learned much about him, but the greatest insight I gleaned was during a coffee break. I was speaking with a woman from Canada, a professor, who said, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would move to the US.” Quite surprised, I ask: “Why?” She replied: “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes.” Canadians, she explained, seemed bent on cutting down all their heroes, except for some star athletes.
Coming of age in the 1950s and early 1960s, my generation believed in heroes. We watched shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Superman,” and “Gunsmoke.” Men had their weaknesses; however, they sought to do right, to seek justice, to be driven by moral principles. They spoke a moral vocabulary. They possessed a moral compass. In that age, presidents didn’t lie, at least we did not think they did. They never made statements like President Bill Clinton, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” They had been war heroes who led large invasion fleets to free captive continents from totalitarianism.
One need not be African-American, or even American, to see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a genuine, true-blue, hero. Consider his accomplishments. In 1955, at the age of 26, he earned a Ph.D. from Boston University. He also led the Montgomery bus boycott opposing laws which forced blacks to ride at the back of buses or give up their seats for whites on crowded buses.
At age 29, he published his first book. In 1957 King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of black churches and ministers that aimed to challenge racial segregation.
In the 50s and 60s, he organized and led numerous protests against racist laws which sought to keep the races segregated and hinder the progress of African-Americans, activities that led to jail on numerous occasions.
Throughout 1966 and 1967, King increasingly turned the focus of his civil rights activism throughout the country to economic issues. He began to argue for redistribution of the nation’s economic wealth to overcome entrenched black poverty. In 1967 he began planning a Poor People’s Campaign to pressure national lawmakers to address the issue of economic justice.
In the spring of 1968, this focus on economic rights took King to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking black garbage workers. He was assassinated in there by a sniper on April 4. News of the assassination resulted in an outpouring of shock and anger throughout the nation and the world, prompting riots in more than 100 United States cities.
His most famous speech is the “I Have a Dream Speech.” King and other black leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington, a massive protest in Washington, D.C., for jobs and civil rights. On August 28, 1963, King delivered this stirring address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. His “I Have a Dream” speech expressed the hopes of the civil rights movement in oratory as moving as any in American history:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
To me his most poignant speech is not this one but rather the speech he gave on April 3, the night before he was shot.
“Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
We can draw many things from the life of Martin Luther King. One reminder this holiday brings to me is to envision—as he did— a world of better social justice, better opportunities and freedoms for people who, for one reason or another, have been left behind in the march of history.
I am reminded of a book, popular a few decades ago entitled, “The Education of a WASP.” (WASP: white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant) Towards the end the author, Lois Stalvey, dreams of a world shorn of color boundaries. Perhaps some day in the future we shall not talk of black, white, brown, and yellow. Perhaps one day, she says, we shall all be one beautiful creamy color. I have seen this happen in my own extended family, which now includes African-Americans.
So today, I have asked my own pantheon of heroes—the Lone Ranger, Superman, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Mother Teresa and Abe Lincoln, among others—to move over and make room for Martin Luther King.
Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI.