Saturday, April 7, 2012

Pondering MLK

Books, articles, and movies have been produced in great quantity, narrating and honoring the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The amazing amount of material produced about him is appropriate: he is pivotal in the history of the twentieth century. Almost everything that can be said or written about him has already been said or written.

We might ask about the causes of his success - both during his short lifetime, and in the decades afterward. There were many leaders in the civil rights movement; few rose to his heights during their time on this planet, and few have endured in human memory so vividly after they left it. What was it about MLK which made him so distinctively impactive? Historian William F. Buckley, Jr., writes:

What moved so many about what King had had to say was its ground, not in constitutional exegesis, but in Christian dogma. Equality under the law, in America, had been a focus constitutional evolution - blacks, women, minors. The Constitution, as everybody knows, implicitly condoned slavery. The approach to equality continues to be progressive. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, Plessy vs. Ferguson authorized a prolongation of inequality, Brown vs. Board of Education reversed Plessy, the Civil Rights Acts parsed equality. The ground of this evolution has been a religiously transcendent view of human beings, in the absence of which the bell curve is king.

In the absence of spiritual view of humans, in which each human life carries equal worth and dignity, we are content to value some people as more valuable than others. If we adopt MLK's worldview, we demand that every human being be acknowledged, in Jefferson's words, as having a "sacred and undeniable" right to life and liberty.

"The lights that motivated Martin Luther King (by his own words) are" essentially spiritual: he was a clergyman, who earned his paycheck preaching the New Testament. He challenged America to live up to the words of its founding documents, but in order to issue such a challenge, he stood on a still deeper form of foundation. This is what gives MLK's enduring legacy such power.