Martin Luther King Jr’s character and life offer a stark illustration that only a few saints and monsters walk the Earth amongst the humans, and that the great can also be greatly flawed, for it is our lot for Cain and Abel to eternally struggle within each and every one of us.
MLK was a plagiarist, a serial adulterer, and, at most charitable, a flirt with communism and far-left politics. He was also a man of a truly powerful word – and the Word – as well as of courage, a great moral leader of the century, a beacon lighting up both the injustices suffered by his people in the land of the free and at the same time showing his people the way to the Promised Land.
Today, like the Man-God in whose steps he followed and whose Gospel he preached, Dr King is claimed by all. It helps that he was a man of contradictions, at least to our early 21st century sensibilities. He was a man of God and a sinner; a faithful leader but a faithless husband. He was a man of the left who was fighting against the Democratic Party racists and segregationists. He was a champion of peaceful resistance and a strong supporter of the right to bear arms. He is a hero of the secular left who was staunchly pro-life and whose beautiful rhetoric is steeped in the language now completely alien to the progressive discourse.
How has his dream fared then, fifty-five years later?
On one level, it has been achieved. While racism and racial prejudice will be with us as long as humanity walks the Earth and so the Promised Land always elusively remains a few steps ahead of us and outside of our reach, on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners are able to sit together at the table of brotherhood. And even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, was transformed, if not into an oasis of freedom and justice, then at least into something infinitely better than its old self. Even in Alabama, little black boys and black girls are able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. It might still have its vicious racists, but its Governor no longer has his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.
On another level, however, that dream, after a promising start, seems to be receding even further away. Standing in front of the monument of the Great Emancipator, the man who took the first step to confront the original sin of the American Republic, Martin Luther King Jr. memorably said, his cadences rippling through the crowd like wind-whipped waves, “I have a dream that little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Do the people who claim the loudest to be the legatees of King’s work still have that dream today? Sadly, not many, it seems. The new Democratic Party, which eventually ditched its Bull Connors and George Wallaces, the left more broadly, the African-American leadership, the civil rights establishment are all increasingly beholden to the false prophecy of identity politics; the neo-Marxist vision that sees people not as individuals but as members of a group, and judges them by the color of their skin and not the content of their character.
It is always a perilous exercise to try to guess what a famous historical figure would think if they were alive today but I can’t help but to imagine that Dr King would be surprised and disappointed. His vision of America was one where his people would be given the same dignity as white Americans – to be considered each on their own merits and not treated – and treated badly – en masse, by virtue of their race, or any other shared characteristic for that matter. King asked us to see that colour is only skin deep and to get the measure of a fellow human being we need to try peer deeper and harder into the mind, the heart and the soul of a person. I think he would be loath to generalise about black and white, men and women, or any other group as a whole as good or bad, victims and perpetrators, saints and sinners, racists and unprejudiced. Sadly, by a twisted logic, those who like him try to preach colour-blindness are now more often than not called out as racists, or at best naive.
Maybe one day “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we’re free at last!’” but today is not yet that day. And it won’t arrive until we indeed learn to see each other as all God’s children, and not caricatures and cyphers.
Arthur Chrenkoff blogs at The Daily Chrenk where this piece also appears.
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