Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A man without borders

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This year marks the 23rd anniversary of the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, first observed on January 20, 1986. Were he alive today (January 15), King would have celebrated his 80th birthday.

Today millions of Americans are remembering the civil rights leader and human rights advocate. The long holiday weekend approaches, and the U.S. takes center stage as the world prepares to welcome a new American president.

King was a husband, a father, and a preacher. He was also the preeminent leader of a movement that continues to transform America and the world. One of the twentieth century's most influential men, he lived an extraordinary life.

To truly understand King, this writer believes that one should read his writings. Scholars and casual researchers can now gain access to these important jewels of history. Yesterday, for the first time, a major portion of King’s papers went public.

Computer access to the documents, which have been digitized and cataloged, are available at the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center. Click here to gain access the collection.

The papers represent more than 75 percent of a 10,000-item collection bought by a group of civic and business leaders in 2006 from King’s family. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Mayor Andrew Young spearheaded the effort to raise $32 million for the purchase.

King scholar Clayborne Carson, founding director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, has been named executive director of the papers and distinguished professor at Morehouse College. Morehouse, King’s undergraduate alma mater, is custodian of the collection.

The documents include many of King’s speeches and personal writings from 1946 to 1968.

Journalists, historians, legislators and community leaders continue to examine whether King's appeal for peace with justice is as relevant today as it was when he was alive. A couple of years ago, an editorial in the Houston Chronicle attempted to place King's philosophy into present-day perspective. Here is an excerpt from the piece:

Although he rose to national prominence fighting racial segregation in the South, many of the issues roiling the United States 38 years after his assassination would be very familiar to Martin Luther King Jr.

Before his death, the Baptist minister had denounced America's involvement in the Vietnam War, a daring stance that fueled the growing opposition to the carnage in Southeast Asia. He was bitterly criticized in the media and by government officials for venturing beyond the sphere of civil rights, as if that were the only area in which he was entitled to an opinion.

With the country now split by the bloody, open-ended struggle in Iraq and by the mistaken justification for going to war, it's not hard to predict where King would stand on the matter.

Americans debate the revelation that their government is conducting warrantless surveillance of Americans inside the United States. King had plenty of experience on that score. He was relentlessly wiretapped and trailed by the FBI. Then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was convinced that King was a communist sympathizer.

Just as he stood with refuse workers in Memphis in the last days before an assassin's bullet struck him down, King would championed the dispossessed evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, potent symbols of a race-based economic underclass that persists as a legacy of slavery and discrimination. The New Orleans nightmare that Katrina exposed indicates that the vision King enunciated in his "I Have a Dream" speech is not yet realized.

Like his role model for nonviolent protest, Mohandas K. Gandhi, King grew to be a world figure by embracing universal humanitarian concerns that surmounted ethnicity and religion. As he once said, "Evil is not driven out, but crowded out ... through the expulsive power of something good."

That's why the celebration of his life today cannot be limited to a single community or issue. African-Americans are justly proud that he rose from their ranks, but his life is significant to all Americans.

It's been nearly four decades since King's death in 1968. For years, many scholars have suggested that King faced the same fate that has befallen many a historical figure - being frozen in a moment in time that ignores the full complexity of the man and his message.

On January 20, Barack Obama takes over as the country's chief executive officer. With this historic presidency comes the "thawing" the King legacy.

The brilliance of King's message is being celebrated worldwide. This leader of civil and human rights demonstrated that he was, indeed, "a man without borders."

The dream is no longer deferred. Change is here to stay.

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Brea said...

I have been attending a community conversation series where we read a work by King and then come together to discuss it. I have no doubt that his message is timely today. Thank you for this post.

Deb S. said...

Brea: I think it's a great idea to read a work by MLK and have a community conversation. Thanks for weighing in on the post.

Stephen Bess said...

I never get tired of hearing his last speech -- truly powerful. Thanks for this.

Deb S. said...

Stephen: It was a piece I enjoyed doing. Thank you.

Andre said...

Hi Deb,

After ducking and dodging shoes that were aimed directly at my head by an anonymous blogger, I thought I'd stop by.

For starters, great post. Dr. King is one of the fascinating characters in history whose story will never grow old. Very nice tribute.

However, one of things I've always found interesting (not necessarily in a good or bad way) was that Dr. King was largely excoriated during his life; especially because of his fiery opposition to Vietnam. Universities cancelled speaking engagements. He feel from grace in most approval polls. I mean, the dude was even wiretapped by the Feds. All this; on top of the affair he was having and the rumors of other inappropriate relations he had with Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin. While these are pretty troubling aspects to mention when addressing a historic figure, all of these stories fold into the life of Dr. King. The speeches are important. The marches are important. The arrests are important. But I think the untouched dimensions of Dr. King's life should also be explored; especially if we want to show the less-than-glamourous sides of being an agent for change.

The mythicized person in the history books was not the same one who lived.

Deb S. said...

Andre, I think you dodged the shoes pretty well, almost as well as W. ;-)

About Dr. King: A true student of history (or MLK) is going to look at all aspects of the man. There are dangers in deifying someone like Dr. King (or Barack Obama).

All great leaders have made mistakes and had failures. These visionaries don't allow their flaws to deter them from making a positive, lasting impact on society.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to be Martin Luther King. As a public figure, his every move was scrutinized. He had white and black detractors.

King was a young man when he was approached about taking an active leadership role in civil rights. As I understand it, he didn't exactly jump at this opportunity.

From a scholarly point of view, I think it's good to study the good and not-so-good about historical figures.

You are right. King was demonized our government. His civil rights were violated. Threats were made on him and his family. And there is strong evidence that King had his weak moments. I think it's very important that we view everything in the proper perspective and to not lose focus.

Martin Luther King Jr. clearly demonstrated himself to be a change agent. He confronted evil head on. He upset the status quo. He spoke and wrote with great authority and knowledge. That's why so many people were afraid of him and the values for which he stood. It's human nature to feel threatened by the truth.

I just read an MLK quote today:

Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking.

History is full of persistent social issues.

Andre, thanks so much for stopping by and making us think!

T.W. said...

I have often went to the speech he had prepared for the night he was assinated... I can never repay this man for the shoulders he has give me to stand on. He is truely a giant and the reason I have excelled in my life. I will never forget his birthdate, aside from the holiday's date, as long as I live.

Ian Lidster said...

a truly touching testimonial and a wonderful source of information in one beautifully expressed blog. My hat is off to you for this, dear friend Deb. It put me in mind of the summer of 1968 when I was riding in a taxi in Vienna and the cabbie turned around and asked in heavily accented English, "Why you did kill Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King?" He meant, of course, Americans and I protested, even though I was Canadian, that most Americans were as horrified as he was by the tragedies.

But, as you express, what a monumental event will be next week's Inauguration. It just makes me love my American cousins.

Christina said...

This speech (still) gives me goose bumps. It makes me think of, all that I have done and all that I could be doing. So much more work to be done. ; )Because of this speech, I have never been afraid to dream. I love that!

Dr. King's hope, loves on.

This is beautiful Deb.

Thank you, so kindly for visiting me.

Deb S. said...

T.W.: MLK was, indeed, a giant.

Ian: The term "cousins" sounds so endearing. I wonder how many other Canadians share your sentiments. ;-)

As for 1968, it was a year of much American tragedy and unrest. The question by the cabbie in Vienna is very telling about how the rest of the world viewed the U.S. Thanks for sharing that. Thanks, also, for your kind words about the post. As for next week, it's going to be HUGE.

Christina: Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. May you always dream. Your blog, BTW, is wonderfully creative!

EHT said...

Deb, thanks so much for visiting History Is Elementary and commenting on my post Now Is the Time for Your Tears.

I've been in the hospital and haven't gotten around to checking my comments for a few days.

Thanks for referring my readers to your post. Great job!

Deb S. said...

EHT: I hope you're feeling much better. Thanks for stopping by.

I recommend your post, Now is the time for your tears, to anyone who has an interest in the civil rights era.