Dreamer and prophet: how Dr. King’s words still motivate, remain even more relevant…
On this, the 54th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, it is time, again, to remember the impact his life has had on the world. Dr. King was as much a leader during his brief time on earth as the presidents and legislators of his era. Unlike them, he was not afforded the luxury of an office or the power of government. His commitment to change was rooted in his constituency as the leader of the oppressed. He marched for freedom on the streets of an America awash in self-satisfied hypocrisies, the greatest of which was its belief that the freedom it promised at its founding had limits. The boundless opportunity that mid-century America was experiencing was not shared equally by an underclass, the plight of whom was the life’s work of King.
“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’ If I lived in China or even Russia, or any totalitarian country, maybe I could understand the denial of certain basic First Amendment privileges, because they hadn’t committed themselves to that over there. But somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right.”
— -April 3, 1968, in Memphis
At his “Mountaintop” speech, given the day before he was assassinated, King neatly framed the disingenuousness of our founding documents. America was founded for the wealthy, white landowners and the rest of us were simply along for the ride. There was an exception, however, and for all American citizens, the denial of these promised rights to the enslaved population who were denied citizenship still impacts us. The corrosiveness of privilege evidenced by founders like Jefferson and Washington who signed on to those words in the Declaration of Independence and, later, the Constitution while holding captive slaves made Dr. King’s sacrifice inevitable.
The images of King’s marches and the speeches that were marked by them are so relevant today. The “march” of January 6 and the tenure of TFG are the extenuated perversion of the failure of America to deliver on its promise. The power of non-violent protest is in stark contrast to the criminal violence by adherents of Trump. What King knew instinctively was that power was not centered in the Capitol or the White House, any of the citadels where it is exercised. The real power to create meaningful change rose from the streets where his people lived and worked. In fact, the rioters of “The Steal” got it exactly backward, just as the Founders had many years earlier. The rights they recognize as essential to citizenship are endowed and not conferred. Further, those rights do not flow from governments, but, as the Declaration of Independence notes, are self-evident and unalienable human rights belonging to all mankind. Jefferson’s words were not entirely his own, as the origins of his construct on “natural rights” are derived from the Enlightenment, and particularly from the writings of John Locke:
“All mankind… being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.”
“The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.”
— John Locke in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, published in 1689
The bigotry that Dr. King fought and the hatred that ended his life 54 years ago are unnatural and belie our shared humanity. Today, with the nomination of Ketanji Brown-Jackson nearly assured, the wisdom of Dr. King’s movement marches on. While change may unfairly be slow to come, for those who oppose it, it is also overpoweringly inevitable. It is unlikely that Jefferson and his colleagues were unaware of the meaning of Locke’s words. They debated and decided against ending slavery because of economics and not reason. King’s words in reflecting on the use of non-violent means to settle these longstanding inequalities and injustice are more meaningful in how prophetic and encompassing they are. Their relevance today reveals the impact of injustices on all mankind based upon their rights to self-determination and our status as equals:
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, 31 March 1968
As we mourn his loss today, we should also acknowledge his role in history as one who furthered the dreams of all mankind to be born and live free, to be endowed with rights by nature of their shared humanity, and “to preserve and enlarge freedom.” King’s legacy is not ours alone, it is centuries-long in the making. When the history of mankind is finally written, his words and his willingness to act non-violently in the pursuit of justice will be part of the enduring theme of freedom.
Originally published at https://vincerizzo.substack.com on April 4, 2022.