EDITORIAL: Dreaming of freedom on MLK Day
EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial originally ran 10 years ago this Martin Luther King Jr. Day as America prepared to inaugurate its first black president. We offer it both for its historical value and to allow reflection on what has, and hasn’t, changed since then.
This year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day has particular relevance. It falls one day before America inaugurates its first black (or if you prefer, bi-racial) president. That historic event does not absolve the nation of its previous racial sins, nor does it eliminate nor invalidate existing problems of race. But surely the election of Barack Obama further validates the success of the movement King led.
We celebrate King for his courage, humanity and ideas. They are the same qualities that imbued the founding of this nation, albeit imperfectly. King effected monumental steps toward rectifying that.
He was a preacher, a civil rights activist and a social reformer. He led a movement that was opposed with fists, clubs, dogs, fire hoses, jail, bombs and death. He responded wearing the mantle he instinctively deemed appropriate at the time — sometimes invoking the Bible and a moral agenda, sometimes Lincoln and a political agenda, sometimes statistics and a social agenda. No one since has managed to juggle the three with such great and compelling skill.
MLK parade held in Panama City
King was of course a great orator, his “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 being one of the signature addresses in American history. Even after repeated listenings, it still can give you goosebumps. But he had more than just inspiring words and intonation working for him.
He had moral clarity.
King appealed to the better angels of America’s nature. Confronted with the injustices of Jim Crow, the majority of the nation understood they were fundamentally unfair, wrong and un-American. The legal barriers that had been erected to deny citizens their full, God-given rights were dismantled, and done the right way — not with dynamite, but peacefully and democratically, so that everyone could share in the accomplishment. To that end, King’s dream was realized.
Changing attitudes is more difficult. A stroke of a pen can alter the law of the land, but hearts are a lagging indicator of progress. Racism has not been eradicated, but it has declined.
Yet, even as state-mandated segregation ended long ago, Americans today voluntarily separate. We choose our friends and neighbors from among a multitude of preferences, including, but not limited to, commonalities of income, education, race, creed, national origin and gender. We are members of an increasingly diverse society who nevertheless seek the company of those who most resemble ourselves.
Is this a rejection of King’s dream? Or an ironic sign of its success — the result of the freedom of association he and his movement helped secure?
America should strive for equality in opportunity, not equality in outcomes. The former is associated with removing barriers, often government-constructed, to realizing individual potential. The latter involves the heavy hand of government interfering in people’s lives, which perversely promotes forms of discrimination.
King is heralded rightly as an emancipator of blacks, but civil rights are not limited to race or minority status. They belong to all of us — if some are not free, then ultimately none are. Thus was King fighting for us all. That is why he was a true American hero — no hyphen necessary.