The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Virginia, state employees are enjoying day four of a four-day weekend. Friday was Lee-Jackson Day.

It’s a long and interesting history. Virginia for many years celebrated Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday. When the federal MLK, Jr. holiday went into effect for a while Virginia Celebrated Lee-Jackson-King Day. The politically correct compromise was to make the Friday before Lee-Jackson Day and for Monday to be retained as MLK, Jr. Day.

As a fiscal conservative, I wonder about the cost to government. As a 20-year state employee, I ain’t gonna snark at the time off.

But that’s not what this post is about.

It’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act was passed. 50 years since the year I started school and the year schools were first desegregated in my Southwest Virginia county.

I have written my thoughts about Dr. King before. You can read them here. I have visited his grave in Atlanta. I have participated in a gospel choir that performed at the Kennedy Center on the weekend honoring Dr. King’s birth. In case you were at that concert in 1992, out of the 150 men I was one of the two white guys. It was awesome.

But, I digress.

I read this morning an article posted by a friend on Facebook (thanks Kathy). While 30+ years in conservative politics still makes it difficult for me to link to anything from Daily Kos, this is worth your time to read: Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did

The article is three years old, but still valid. The author says:

But this is what the great Dr. Martin Luther King accomplished. Not that he marched, nor that he gave speeches.

He ended the terror of living as a black person, especially in the south.

I’d never really thought about it that way. Not because I’m an evil white person, but because I never had the same experiences. And as far as I know, that type of thing didn’t happen in my home town. At least not in my memory.

That’s not to say there wasn’t racism. There most certainly was. I’ve mentioned before my first-grade teacher who once said to the class “I can read Little Black Sambo to you today because Robert isn’t here.”

Again, I digress.

I hate the term “process” but the article made me think. This is an incomplete thought, so work with me, but it occurs to me that the hate shown in the post-Civil War era was in a sense worse than slavery itself. No, that’s not some moronic statement that the slaves were better off. While slavery was most certainly abusive, the slaves were there for a purpose, admittedly a wrong one. But the violence and abuse that came after the war ended and the slaves were freed was based in pure hate and ignorance.

While I’m on my soapbox, let’s be clear that while this was certainly most concentrated in the south, just because of the population, anyone who implies that racism didn’t exist in the north is just ignorant.

It’s sad that 50 years after the Civil Rights Act was passed and 45 years after Dr. King was murdered that we still have hate and racism. Sad, but totally predictable.

In one sense it just proves that while there can be legal protections, you can’t legislative people into better character or into behaving better.

And in another sense, just as with the terror attacks of 9/11, events like Dr. King’s murder which we say will “change us forever” don’t keep us from reverting back to our own (yes, sinful) human nature.

Dr. King said:

“Now there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. Just keep being friendly to that person. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies. (from “Loving Your Enemies”)”
? Martin Luther King Jr., A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

I didn’t mean to turn this post into a sermon. In fact, when I started writing, I wasn’t sure where it was going to go.

Dr. King knew that the solution to hate and racism was in the words of Jesus:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
~ Matthew 5:43-48

Those were revolutionary words when Jesus spoke them. Not a political revolution, not a cultural revolution. But a revolution of the heart.

Likewise, Dr. King understood that what was needed was a revolution of the heart. And while there were certainly political and cultural aspects to the movement he lead, Dr. King knew that, while laws were necessary, they wouldn’t change the hearts of men.

That’s his legacy. That’s what we should remember.

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