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Martin Luther King’s Legacy: Nonviolence is Not Surrender

The memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King opened on the Mall in Washington. Dr. King will take his place with Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The monument features a 30-foot figure of Dr. King, hewn from granite, looking forward and very stern. This is the look of a man of action whose work is not done.

That is its power.

Dr. King was a man of peace, but he was not a passive man. He believed that confrontation in the face of indignation preceded reconciliation. To have healing, you must pull the glass from the wound. He was, as he said, a drum major for justice. He knew that peace was the presence of justice, not the absence of noise. And it could only be achieved through struggle, through the concerted actions of engaged citizens.

We pay tribute to Dr. King’s dream, but he was not an idle dreamer. His was a dream of transformation. He was a man who used demonstration, negotiation, confrontation and reconciliation to achieve change.

The 1963 March on Washington took place in a capital still stained by legal segregation. Fannie Lou Hamer, Jim Farmer, head of CORE, and many others could not get to the march because they were in jail. I had just been released from jail, arrested for trying to use a public library. Across the South, marchers who gathered could not use public accommodations. We were still locked out of restaurants, restrooms and hotels.

Dr. King taught nonviolence, but nonviolence was not surrender. We used our bodies as living sacrifices. He took the sting out of jail cells and death. No sacrifice is too great to achieve a higher moral purpose.

Perfect love casts out fear. Dr. King was fearless. He insisted that we see the humanity in our oppressors — but that we not accept the oppression. We must protest, in disciplined, nonviolent but forceful demonstrations, and boycott, litigate, lobby and legislate, tying up the legislatures, filling up the jails. We had to demand respect for our humanity, even as we appealed to the humanity of those who would beat and jail us.

Dr. King held no public office; he amassed no fortune. He was not a saint, but he had a saintly cause and a steely purpose. He was an extraordinary leader helping to inspire ordinary people — the poor sharecropper, the student, the minister, the seamstress — to put aside daily routines and take heroic risks and make historic contributions to justice. That movement transformed America.

Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration consecrated an America dedicated to liberty and justice for all, but blacks were considered three-fifths human. Democracy and slavery cannot co-exist. Lincoln’s agony erased the stain of slavery, and saved the union. King’s movement ended American apartheid, and brought us closer to America’s promise for all. One Big Tent America is where all are protected by law, and none is afraid of terror from the other.

Dr. King did not stop there. From ending segregation, he continued to march and to preach, moving Lyndon Johnson to drive through the Voting Rights Act. And still he did not stop. He won epic battles in life-risking bloody struggles in Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma and St. Augustine. He challenged de facto segregation in Chicago.

He challenged the Vietnam War, knowing that the war on poverty was being lost in those jungles. He believed bombs dropped in Vietnam exploded in American cities because of neglect of the poor.

I remember him on his last birthday. He ate breakfast with his family. Then he came to work in jeans, working tirelessly on assembling a Poor People’s Campaign, bringing people across bounds of race, region and religion, to come to Washington to demand economic justice. He was prepared to engage in civil disobedience and defy a system that ignored the poor, and he challenged the United States Congress to change its priorities. He believed that a moral society would put a floor under all people, providing a right to a job or a minimum income that would lift each family above poverty.

Dr. King is loved and honored now. But in his life, like all prophets of change, like Jesus, Mandela, Gandhi, he was hated, slandered, despised. The FBI sought to destroy him. He was arrested, beaten, scorned. He grew tired; he understood how far we had come, and also how far we had yet to go. We were together in his last hour, when he went to Memphis to stand with sanitation workers striking to gain a decent wage.

His visage should be stern. His work is not yet done. America now is more unequal than when he died, with poverty spreading. The nation is fighting three wars abroad, even while slashing support for schools, for the sick, for infants at home. We hear new advocates of states’ rights posturing about seceding from a nation they claim to love. This is a nation desperately in need of a new movement for justice, of citizens once more marching to redeem this nation.

Dr. King helped make America better. We honor him not merely by a statue, but by fulfilling his mission: ending the unnecessary wars, wiping out poverty, and leaving Washington and returning to our homes with the determination to maintain gains earned by years of blood, struggle and martyrdom.

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