On this MLK, Jr. Day, I’ve listened to various commentary and read about Dr. King. He remains a stalwart in my mind as a true American hero, but like many others, I remain saddened and conflicted on the state of race relations in our country. I was old enough to clearly remember the day Dr. King was killed, but up until that time, I don’t think I was aware of him or his significance. Heck, I was not even seven years old at the time and was living in very white St. Paul, Minnesota. Little did I know at that time, but Dr. King would come up again and again throughout my life as a symbol of Freedom and many other ideals.
We discussed Dr. King’s assassination in school. The only context I really remember was a teacher describing that it was done by a racist southerner. This was roughly the same time that we started discussing the Civil War in school. We had posters with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. juxtaposed as martyrs who gave their lives for freedom. On one side was the white man from Illinois, President Lincoln, who used war to free the slaves. He was shot for his actions by an evil southern sympathizer, John Wilkes Booth. On the other side was a black man from Atlanta, Georgia, who led the nonviolent movement to provide blacks with equal rights as citizens. He, too, was shot by a southern sympathizer and racist, James Earl Ray, who was born, ironically, less than 100 miles away from Lincoln’s birthplace.
One thing that made the whole discussion of the Civil War, Abe Lincoln, MLK, and Civil Rights so difficult for me was that the perpetrators of all the evil were southerners and/or southern sympathizers. I was personally conflicted because my grandparents on my father’s side were from South Carolina. The Deep South! I KNEW my grandparents and THEY were not evil. In fact, they were both what I would consider the most honest and honorable people I’ve ever known. The first song I learned to play on the piano was “Dixie,” much to the delight of my grandparents. Whenever discussions of the South came up, I felt somewhat compelled to try to defend them, and by extension, the South in general.
I later felt that same way any time the Civil War or objections to the Confederate Battle Flag came up. At the time, I didn’t appreciate or understand the significance that flag held to African Americans. I still feel that most southerners held to that icon as a symbol of their own equality vis-a-vis the northern states, and as a symbol of pride for their people and region. It was merely a vocal few, I believed, who attempted to use the banner as a symbol of oppression and hate. Despite my beliefs, the fact that the latter’s use of the flag as a weapon has made it become so. While at one time I would have proudly flown the banner in camaraderie with my southern brethren (both, black and white), I would never do so today. But I digress. This is about Dr. King!
My next early encounter with Dr. King was in a college-level speech class at the University of Minnesota. In addition to orations by Sir Winston Churchill and President John F. Kennedy, we studied speeches by Representative Barbara Jordan to the Democratic Convention in 1976, and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” masterpiece. As a young political science student, I was mesmerized by all, but was particularly captivated by Dr. King’s strong voice, brilliant pacing, and his wonderful intonation as a Baptist preacher.
It was not until later, as an adult, that I learned much more about this American hero. This included while in Law School reading his Letter From a Birmingham Jail and following up with King’s book, “A Trumpet of Conscience,” by the King Legacy Series and “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference” by David J. Garrow. As I studied King, I recognized that he, like ALL of us, was a flawed man. He was pilloried for his flaws, just as opponents of ALL great leaders attempt to utilize human failures as weapons to obscure the message. Unfortunately for King, it took him to die a martyr for his message to take hold.
Today, reflecting upon Dr. King and his legacy, of the many wonderful ideals of Dr. King’s Dream, there is a single phrase from that famous speech that continues to inspire me – Let Freedom Ring! Freedom is one of the defining callings of my life. It took me to the military to serve as a Soldier and later to serve as a lawyer in further search for freedom and justice. It continues today in my desire to serve my country and my interest in national politics in general. Dr. King uses the refrain, “Let Freedom Ring,” from our country’s informal anthem, “My Country Tis of Thee,” to extol a Nation where ALL are considered equal, not only by God, but by each other, and to describe a place where bigotry has nowhere to hide. Then, and only then, will we be free at last! What a wonderful, positive, forward-looking sentiment during these petulant times. Thank you, Dr. King!