Tomorrow, we mark a state and national holiday honoring the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Doing so presents an opportunity to reflect on our nation’s past and look forward in the hope that someday, America will awaken to the vision of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. That someday, people will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
It is true that as a nation, we have come a long way since King delivered that historic speech on the steps of the Lincoln Monument almost 54 years ago. There is much progress to celebrate in the long march toward racial reconciliation and equality.
It’s also true that racial and social divisions remain raw in these times, and that those who would inflame racial resentment and social grievances are busy undermining progress. They betray the notion of liberty and justice for all, which is not just King’s vision, but the vision of all true American patriots.
Perhaps no American in the 20th Century was better suited to his time and place in history, more influential in his cause, than King. Even today, his words have profound relevance for this moment in our history, when far too many of us have become polarized, tribal, and uncompromising. Continuing down that course leads to the rise of extremists, and once that road is traveled, history shows it’s hard to turn back.
King personally was labeled an “extremist” in his day, even by some allies in the Civil Rights Movement. King rejected the criticism, noting that he stood for nonviolent activism even as others in the movement advocated violence.
After he was arrested for involvement in a nonviolent protest against segregation that ended with unleashed police brutality against demonstrators that shocked the nation, King addressed the “extremist” label head-on. Here is what he wrote in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:
“Was not Jesus an extremist in love? — ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice? — ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the gospel of Jesus Christ? — ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Was not Martin Luther an extremist? — ‘Here I stand; I can do no other so help me God.’ Was not John Bunyan an extremist? — ‘I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a mockery of my conscience.’ Was not Abraham Lincoln an extremist? — ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ Was not Thomas Jefferson an extremist? — ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
“So the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”
King’s legacy, and the reason we honor him, live in those questions. We must never cease asking these questions of ourselves, of our community, of our leaders, of our nation.
How we answer those questions will define the content of our character, regardless of the color of our skin.