When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. admonished the Southern white religious leaders who called his civil rights actions “unwise and untimely,” he did it with empathy and understanding. In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King prefaced his own strong, morally held belief in equality by calling his critics “men of genuine good will” whose words were “sincerely set forth.” Think of it: A minister in jail, rejected by fellow men of faith, was nonetheless respectful of those who failed to come to his aid, who failed to see his fight -- rooted in the words of the founders and the principles of faith -- as their own.
On this day to honor him, politicians will utter and issue statements of praise for this man the nation honors, while ignoring every one of the lessons he taught. Respect those who disagree? Give them credit for being good people and patriotic Americans? Not this season.
The mood is anger and retribution – a sea of reddened faces against a soundtrack of loud voices. It little resembles the examples of King and the men, women and children of the movement, whose righteous indignation over injustice was never personal.
On the debate stage of Republican candidates vying to occupy the White House and lead the country this past week, there was a competition for “angriest person alive,” a contest to come up with the most blatant insult – aimed at the country, Democrats and one another.
It was not enough for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to disagree with President Barack Obama’s policies. He had to prove his personal animas toward the first African-American president of the United States with some macho posturing: "We are going to kick your rear end out of the White House come this fall." Yes, put that right alongside King’s advice to conduct debate in “patient and reasonable terms.”
After two terms of office, wasn’t the president leaving on his own?
This wasn’t surprising. Christie has tried to gain traction as a candidate by doubling-down on his tough-guy persona. But oddly enough, he has judged one group’s anger illegitimate. That would be the mostly peaceful protesters demanding investigations into the shootings and killings of unarmed citizens. At those times, his words echo many of the verbal attacks that greeted the sign-carrying men and women who marched with King. A litany of rationalizations, like those of the cautious white ministers King addressed in his letter, always urged patience and peace – even while those who met the non-violent marchers with violence would have none of it.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote. He could urge respect for laws even as he led action to criticize and change unjust ones – a feat of nuance few leaders embody today. The payoff now is to divide the world into good and bad, allies or adversaries, without stepping into the shoes of those with whom you might disagree.
Of course, there are politicians such as Rahm Emanuel, the Democratic mayor of Chicago, who is fighting for his political life over the actions -- caught on tape – of some police officers in his city. Now he is visiting community groups and inviting dialogue to demonstrate his commitment to King-like ideals of justice and understanding. But it’s not enough to mouth the words when your decisions as a leader may call that commitment into question – hypocrisy King would point out.
Have any of those who trot out rote words to memorialize King absorbed his message, smuggled out of that jail on scraps of paper, that we are all one? He wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”
When divisions of race, religion and philosophy are exploited, with dissenting voices shouted down or carted out of partisan rallies, there will be winners and losers, but will that make the country weaker or stronger?
When politicians look for the sure-fire applause line that downgrades this country and questions the patriotism of the man who was twice elected to lead it, what are they saying about the citizens who voted for him? Aren’t they the very Americans they one day hope to lead?
Republican candidates Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have clashed over Cruz’s slam against “New York values” and a city that Americans of all political philosophies nevertheless love to visit, with many making a stop at the memorial to the brave actions on Sept. 11, 2001, a day Trump evoked in his eloquent debate defense.
This is the same Trump, though, whose supporters aren’t shy about heckling and attacking rally protesters who are carted off, at Trump’s behest. One can’t imagine King ever saying, as Trump did, “Maybe he should have been roughed up,” though the civil rights leader surely heard it often enough.
Trump will be speaking at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., on the King holiday. And some students at the conservative religious institution of learning, founded by Jerry Falwell, feel uncomfortable
with the choice of speaker and the timing.
A singular fight of the civil rights movement was the issue of voting rights, with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a culmination of the hard work and sacrifice of King and many others. After the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated key portions of the act in 2013, states across the country passed restrictive laws
proponents say protect voting integrity, and opponents say target the poor, young people and people of color.
Renewal of the 1965 act was easy and bipartisan in 2006, when the U.S. Senate voted unanimously, 98 to 0, in favor, the House passed it, 390 to 33, and President George Bush signed it.
But compromise efforts to shore up provisions in the law today have gone nowhere. Even the moral voice of Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a veteran of the civil rights movement who bears the scars, has not been enough to sway colleagues to vote on clarifying and restoring a bill
that once was not controversial at all.
Would there be a political cost? Maybe. Taking an unpopular stand for something you believe in is something King knew about. Despite the accolades that today greet his name, at the time of his death in 1968 in Memphis, where he had gone to stand with striking black sanitation workers, his increasing work for economic justice and especially his opposition to the Vietnam War had lost him much of the support he had once enjoyed.
Politicians interested in short-term gain are not much interested in waiting decades of distance for unpopular views to be judged by history. What matters is tomorrow’s poll results.
Still, the King holiday is a respite, as the political stakes rise and the rhetoric heats up. It may be best to enjoy it as simply that. But it would also be welcome, revolutionary even, to reflect on and learn from King’s time, when the country was no less divided. Yet there were men, women and children – some forgotten and some honored by history – who made the country better by leading with dignity and unity.
Contact Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter at @mcurtisnc3
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