This morning, I read a Dan Rather tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that resonated with me. But when I returned to copy it, the ending seemed different. The passages immediately below, I now realize, were from Rather’s column written at this time last year.
“I fear that the elevation of Dr. King to the pantheon of great Americans who have national birthday celebrations has come at a subtle cost. These days almost no public official would dare speak ill of Dr. King. However I worry that this universal acclaim has deadened the radicalism of Dr. King’s message. And by radicalism, I mean that what he espoused was far outside what was then the mainstream. It still is. (emphases mine)
“We must remember that he was a deeply contentious person at the time of his death. Dr. King would not, could not, suppress the moral clarity with which he saw the world. His messages about racial prejudice and social justice were not welcome in most corridors of power. He was a danger to the status quo and many who benefited from it. He not only preached powerfully about the necessity for racial healing and integration. He also issued stirring rhetoric from his pulpit on the need for economic fairness across racial lines. And he was a fierce critic of the Vietnam War.
“To re-read his writings and listen again to his speeches in today’s political climate is to reconnect with the hard truths he eloquently hurled at the American establishment. If he had survived the assassin’s bullet and continued on his life path, I am convinced that he would have remained a divisive figure. I fear that many who now pay homage to his legacy with florid paeans would be singing different tunes if he had spent decades more actively rallying civil disobedience toward the twin causes of racial and economic fairness for the marginal and dispossessed.
“So today, please don’t revere Dr. King the American saint. Please engage with Dr. King as the unique vessel for a message America was long overdue to hear. And please reflect on how that message, with all its unsettling fervor, is still one of great urgency.”
In the 2023 commemorative column published today, Rather includes a video of a “Face the Nation” segment in which he asked Dr. King if he thought there was a danger that the Republican party would become a white man’s party. King replied that he did think it was a danger, and he’d spoken with Republican Negro (sic) leaders who agreed it was a problem that would be bad for the Republicans and for the nation.
Rather reprinted some of the rhetoric from the 1963 “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dr. King said:
“…we have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check” against a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir…all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
“America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned…America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt…So we have come to cash this check–a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
“In honor of Dr. King’s birthday, scores of politicians, companies, and organizations will issue comfortable statements praising his courage or quoting his memorable rhetoric. Far too few will acknowledge the continuing truth of what he said. That truth was widely viewed as ‘radical’ at the time. To some swaths of America, it still is.
“As I tweeted this summer, undoubtedly inspired by some comment in the news at the time, ‘Make no mistake, if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive today, he would be stigmatized as ‘woke’ and attacked according.'”
What are your views about the commemoration of Dr. King? Do you agree with Rather that the “subtle cost” of this holiday has “deadened the radicalism of his message”? Or, as Rather also implies, is it up to us to try to break through the whitewashing, making certain in this time of promise and danger that the power of Dr. King’s words reaches more people–as the need for them surely persists?