Earlier this week I looked at a couple of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s most famous speeches, and was impressed with him all over again. That guy was an amazing orator, perhaps the greatest of the twentieth century. I urge you to take a look at some of the things he said. Typing key phrases into Google will bring up lots of copies.
I was eleven years old when he was murdered, and even I knew I was a secondhand witness to important history, in an amazing, often horrible year. Vietnam was a big mess and getting bigger, RFK's murder was still to come, and George Wallace was running for president. It was a violent, divisive time, and yet with hope for a better world to come. In his last speech, King spoke of that better world as the promised land. "I may not get there with you," he said, "But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land."
Around the end of that summer, my Mom staged her musical and political revue They'd Rather Be Right. The most touching part of it was a slide show, featuring pictures etched on our memory: the assassinations and funerals of JFK, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. These were accompanied by the Association song Requiem for the Masses, which probably explains why a member of that group was in the audience for one of the perfomances.
Mom's major source of pictures for the slide show was Life Magazine. One of the shots was of the cover about King's death, titled "The Murder in Memphis." Mom's slide cut off the right edge of the cover, so that it said, "The Murder in Me." When I objected to this, Mom said she liked it that way, because it would encourage people to consider their own murderous impulses.
Dr. King was a freedom fighter, seeking justice and equality, but he was more than that. He believed in non-violent means of achieving his ends, a collaboration in which people of all colors could work together peaceably to overcome ignorance and ill-will. It's an ethic in which the ends do not justify the means, and skin color is no excuse for hatred.
All these years later, his words are still words to live by. Too bad that so many of us today are too cynical, too parochial, too angry, to look from his mountaintop or share in his dream.
"I have a dream 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."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Steps of the Lincoln Memorial
August 28, 1963
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