Can you recall the last time you took a risk? More difficult yet, can you remember the last time you took a risk- as in risking your life for a moral principle; a higher good? I suspect most of us would have difficulty with such recollection- we are human, driven by self-interest and survival, and there is no shame in this. But there are, and have been, exceptions.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. If I’ve done my math correctly, he would have been 93, as he was only 39 when assassinated in 1968. I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I remember being shocked, horrified and heartbroken. And yet, I was amazed it didn’t happen sooner.
For the better part of his life, whenever he stepped out the door, the sense that his head was in the crosshairs was both palpable and realistic. Behaving fearlessly doesn’t negate fear. He was an absolute non-violent warrior for justice- for all people. During his numerous marches and protests he had been beaten, arrested, jailed and stabbed by a deranged woman. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I. , bore an obsessed, pathological hatred for him. William Sullivan, the head of the F.B.I.’s infamous COINTELPRO project (the F.B.I.’s covert and illegal program to surveil, infiltrate and disrupt political groups deemed unamerican, ) wrote in a secret memo, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.” For Dr. King, paranoia was an understatement of reality. Racist organizations, individuals and the full power of the F.B.I. wanted him dead. He was, in reality, their greatest threat.
Dr. King’s charisma was not of the demagogue, but of the iconic moral teacher. And he was, arguably, the greatest orator of the 20th century. His “I Have A Dream” speech from 1963, delivered before thousands at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is indelibly etched in the minds of justice loving people everywhere. “I have a dream,” he stated, “That my four 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. I have a dream today!”
“I have a dream today. That one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. …”
And, as the days of our time grow darker and divides widen, as tribal hatred supplants reason and the sulphuric stench of civil war is in the air, I find myself drifting into cynicism and hopelessness. I feel the whispers of the darker angels of ourselves growing louder, and I feel within myself a growing hatred for those who trade in hate. And when I feel myself sliding toward the abyss, I pause and reflect that once there were great men. You remain my hero, Dr. King. Happy birthday. Your spirit still shines through the darkness.