Monday, January 19, 2015


Last year around this time, I began reading Taylor Branch's Parting of the Waters: American in the King years 1954-1963.  I chose to do so because I felt I just did not know enough about Martin Luther King, Jr., the man.  I knew about the legend.  The demi-god.  The perfect quotes and the slicing arguments for justice, peace, and social progress.  I knew about all of that, but the humanity was lost.

After reading Parting of the Waters (and now reading Pillar of Fire), I find Dr. King's humanity an essential part of his legacy, particularly if we are going to continue to live out his message and his memory.  And when I say "humanity", I don't mean "to err is human" or other attempts to disparage a legend in order to bring them back to earth.  Rather, I think it is important to remember that Martin Luther King, Jr., was a leader of men, developed from a baptist minister for a small church in Georgia.  He set times for his meetings, reserved rooms, and approved minutes.  He put the coffee on before people showed up.  He faced the same jealousies and resentments that today's leaders face.  Dr. King was told by his elders to stop carrying on.  He was told by his contemporaries that he wasn't doing enough.

I find that this humanity magnifies the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement.  Let us all remember on days like today that this was a movement made up of many different leaders, not all in accord with one another, prosecuting their vision on many different levels of civic life.  By reading about the Freedom Rides, you can't help but develop a deep admiration for John Lewis, a man who walked off a bus into mobs numbering in the thousands just to assert rights that were provided to him under the law.  Same is true for Robert Moses, who deserves equal recognition with Dr. King for many of the most recognizable and remarkable tenants of the nonviolent movement.

We do ourselves a great disservice by making gods out of men.  And Martin Luther King, Jr., deserves to be remembered as a man.  Because gods do not fear men and without fear there is no courage.  More remarkable than his intellect, his patience, his convictions, or his steadfast commitment, is Dr. King's courage.  While many of us would consider putting our lives on the line for our deeply held convictions, we likely would be less comfortable doing so if we knew our families were also put at risk.  Not theoretical risk, but "they didn't get us this time" risk.  Many of us would be willing to endure the hate of our opponents so long as we knew our efforts to be righteous, but would we be willing to accept the enmity of an entire race?

How Martin Luther King, Jr., the man, did not live from one mental breakdown to the next is worthy of medical study.  How did he sleep?  How did he keep his hands from shaking?

We have some small idea of how he did this - he imputed the devastating fear we may expect of MLK, the man, on his adversaries.  He presumed that their threats and actions of violence against him represented the actions of scared animals.  And when your adversary is scared, even when they come close to hurting you, they are still on the losing side of things.

We cannot let Dr. King's abstract dreams distract us from the concrete justice he sought and the policy changes intended to make that justice a reality. He marched for Jobs and Freedom.  There will be many elected officials, including a few here in Howard County, who will lionize Martin Luther King, Jr., the demi-god, while continuing to oppose many of the very same policy planks he sought when he told the world that he had a dream.  Among those objectives were:

  • A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed;
  • A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring;
  • A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide ($15.33/hour in 2014 dollars);
  • A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas;
  • Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.
I will spend today thinking about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the man.  I have no use or interest in reflecting on the mythology of a demi-god.  Dr. King was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived and we all can aspire to do the same - setting meetings, reading minutes, and putting the coffee on.

Have a contemplative and service filled Monday doing what you love!