The anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., like previous observances, will be used as both measuring stick and lightning rod. How far has America come since King’s life was snuffed out by an assassin? How far must the country still go to realize his vision of justice and equality?
These are fundamental questions, but they also risk leading us far astray. The pursuit of justice can’t be wrapped into a neat and tidy bundle. One step forward sometimes means two steps back, buffeted by the political and social climate of the day. On this day, it’s difficult to tell which way the nation is headed.
Despite the insidious, know-nothing grandstanding of Donald Trump’s presidency, mass mobilizations on behalf of women’s rights and gun safety took place over the last 12 months. The young people who marched for saner gun laws are in many ways the clear inheritors of King’s precepts behind the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.
King’s dream has been somewhat diluted by the passage of time and overexposure of the speech’s footage, strangely topped by the contradiction of underexposure of its context. How many of us can repeat the details of the dream? But the words today retain their qualities of inspiration and pragmatism, and that is a tough wire to walk.
King’s protests appeared on the surface to be haphazardly assembled and fueled by emotion. In fact, they were rigorously structured, and that structure was apparent through the use of strategy and discipline, drama and moral directness.
There was never a doubt about what King wanted to express. His style created a vivid model that is still used today in protests in America, Europe and the rest of the world. King’s craftsmanship with language is unprecedented in revolutionary thinking. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is one of King’s most-quoted declarations, but it still carries implications. That eight-word statement challenges Americans to place moral character above political alliances.
Beyond the marches and the rhetoric, King’s vision of America simply asks for dignity for all, hate toward none. At the beginning of 2020, with the U.S. sharply divided by partisanship, race, culture and wealth, the vision must be constantly guarded.
Personal, political and societal progress will always be measured against King’s dream. This is King’s powerful legacy. But on the anniversary of his birth, the nation has to meet higher expectations. King’s vision of justice and equality must serve as the unshakable core of American greatness.