Turning Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday into a national holiday is one of the things that America got right. It's a day set apart from all others, when all generations will pause to think about a great man, his legacy and what it should mean to us.
So far that sounds great, and to a large extent it's what's happened. But I've been around for all of the MLK birthday celebrations so far, and the yearly "celebration of his life" is starting to look in ways like a Disneyized version of both the man and his legacy. The last thing we need today is a romanticized version of Martin Luther King, Jr., much less an idealized version of the struggle that he stood for.
In l945, when Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower toured the former German concentration camp at Ohrdruf, he famously said to an aide, "Take pictures. Take lots of pictures. Some day some sons of bitches are going to try to say this never happened."
I haven't heard anyone say that the Civil Rights movement never happened, but the national memory is turning pretty soft. Despite the successful efforts of the Texas School Board to foist upon all American schoolchildren the audacious rewrite of history that gives short shrift to the Civil Rights movement -- and the shameless willingness of textbook publishers to go along with that - the facts do remain the facts. The Civil Rights movement was and remains one of the most significant social justice movements in the history of the Unites States. And despite the almost odd emphasis on "community service" which has come to mark this day- as in, you know, help the homeless, feed the poor, be "peaceful" -- Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for a love that was more significant and more difficult, involving a lot more suffering than just being a good citizen for a day. If all Martin Luther King Jr. had stood for was community service - if his message to black America had been simply to ameliorate the suffering in its midst through compassionate one-on-one action -- then he would probably not have died how or when he did. Let's be clear about that, and not hand down to our children some whitewashed version of the man and his mission. Martin Luther King was far more courageous and more dangerous to the status quo than is reflected in this contemporary caricature.
He challenged the United States to allocate its vast and gargantuan resources in a more fair, just and compassionate way; and for that, he died. He challenged, at the end of his life, the increasing American militarism that sent young men to die for old men's mistakes; and for that, he died. He demanded that the United States make good on its creed of liberty and justice for all, not just in word but in deed; and for that he died. We do not serve his legacy, and we do not serve our children, by portraying either the life or the struggle or the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. as simply the story of a peaceful man who sought to establish "the beloved community" and then, for some mysterious reason that shall remain shrouded in obfuscation, was shot on a motel balcony and died.
No, kids, if you believe that, then you're not asking enough questions. Yes, it's our job to keep his dream of the beloved community alive, but it's also our job to be as critically intelligent as he was regarding the entrenched resistance to the materialization of that dream.
A Protestant theologian in the 20th Century wrote a commentary on the story of the Good Samaritan as he made his journey from what we might call "good" Samaritan to "conscious" Samaritan. The first time the Samaritan saw a beggar on the road, he stopped to give him alms. The second time he saw a beggar on the road, he stopped to give him alms. The third time he saw a beggar on the road, he stopped to give him alms. About the fourth time he saw the beggar on the road, he stopped to ask himself, "Why are there so many beggars?" Martin Luther King would not just ask us to help those who suffer; he would ask us to challenge the institutional forces that make all that suffering inevitable.
On King's birthday this year, a good doctor in Oakland received a Martin Luther King, Jr. Hero's award for treating children with asthma in a low-income community. It struck me, as I watched the award ceremony, that in order to truly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we need do more than honor the good doctor who treats asthma: we need to ask ourselves, and demand of our government, what environmental regulations have been so compromised, and to whose financial benefit, that so many children in American today, particularly in our most disadvantaged communities, have asthma to begin with.
In order to truly keep Dr. King's dream of the beloved community alive, we must dream our own contemporary version of it. We can dream of an America that is not willing to protect the privileges of the few at the expense of the needs of the many; we can dream of an America in which our citizens are not so easily manipulated to equate the size of our military budget with the safety of our future; we can dream of an America, and a world, in which love and not money are civilization's bottom line.
MLK's love was not a complacent love, any more than his political activism was cynical or angry. When confronted with the accusation that he was an extremist, Dr. King made this reply, "Perhaps I am, but I'm an extremist for love." Did you hear that kids? Be extremists....for love. Do not be tricked into thinking that the struggle for the beloved community is easy, unchallenged, or over. It is none of those things. Just as in the days of Dr. King, the struggle for justice is often difficult, it attracts the ire of the prevailing system, and it is far from over. On this one day each year, when we think of Dr. Martin Luther King -- what he gave us, and what we lost -- in order to honor him most deeply, we will do more than community service. We will remember that our service must not stop there. We will try, as he did, to truly step up to the plate. And like him, we will change the world.