Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 89 this month. Dr. King was prematurely, violently and abruptly taken from us in April of 1968, at the young age of 39. While his words and legacy remain, we are compelled to seek his insight and wisdom regarding today’s world by inference, extrapolation, or perhaps best, by prayer.
It would be presumptuous to formulate and express Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s definitive position on many of the issues of today, such as community policing, inflammatory rhetoric (by groups, by elected officials), demonization of the press, nativism and nationalism, heritage and confederate monuments, immigration (DACA, security, “the wall”), educational opportunity, access to health care and housing or economic opportunity (from historical impact and impairment to today’s disparate opportunity and distribution of wealth).
On the other hand, to ignore the wise counsel of those who preceded us is not only folly but forces us to pay the unnecessary penalty of having to relearn from our past and relive the consequences of past mistakes and transgressions.
The philosophers, historians and religious leaders have identified a number of universal values. The core set of values given us by Socrates were wisdom, justice, moderation and courage. To this set of values is generally added compassion, humility and truth. It can be argued that woven within these values and the beginning of wisdom is the belief in something greater than oneself, for example in the Biblical books of Exodus and Job it is noted that the fear of God is the genesis of wisdom. Sometimes the reference is more obtuse by reference to “the natural law,” morality or humanity.
The recognition of these values has not allowed our country to be free from its struggle to implement those values. There is a stark contrast between the eloquent articulation of the goals in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident”) with the original Constitution which, even with the Bill of Rights, condoned the institution of slavery with all its appalling consequences to the dignity, worth and lives of those oppressed into bondage and servitude.
The loss of 623,026 lives in the Civil War is a testament to the price paid for this original sin. The 16th President of our country, Abraham Lincoln, using a number of concepts originally espoused in the Bible and Pericles in the 5th Century BC, called for a “new birth of freedom” and the universal application of the freedoms initially declared as “self-evident.” Performing the same role as the prophets in the Old Testament, Abraham Lincoln admonished, even before running for president, “if we first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it.” (June 16, 1858)
While the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude), the 14th Amendment (with its due process and equal protections clause) and the 15th Amendment (which protected the right to vote regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude), may have addressed a number of constitutional flaws, they have left unfinished a number of the fundamental and rudimentary changes necessary to accomplish “the task” before our country as described by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address.
In 1929 a man was born in Birmingham, Ala. He entered college at 15 years of age. He graduated college at 19 years of age and was, the same year, ordained and appointed as an associate pastor. At age 26 he received a doctorate in theology from Boston College. His studies not only included the Bible, but the Koran, Buddhism and the teachings of Martin Luther and those of Gandhi. This man was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Was he perfect? No, but at times his words came close.
Dr. Martin Luther King is best remembered for his “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered at the Lincoln Memorial, and the “I have been to the mountain top” speech delivered one day before his death.
Rather than reiterate and repeat the words of his more famous speeches, some guidance to our present problems and the affirmative response required might best be gleaned by reflection on the lengthy letter he penned while incarcerated in the Birmingham jail in April 1963.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. concluded his letter by stating:
“If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.”
“Let us hope … the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”
What better and more fitting tribute on the 89th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., than to sincerely dedicate ourselves to: undertake the task before us to lift the present fog of mistrust and misunderstanding; endeavor to foster mutual respect between law enforcement and all groups in the community; build a vibrant coalition of the ecumenical faith-based community actively advancing universal values; and, focus our energies on the wellness and integrity of our institutions in order to provide equal opportunity and justice to each member of each of our communities. May the words of Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. serve as a reminder that the wellness of our community depends upon our recognition and application of certain universal and immutable values and fulfillment of our duty as citizens to fairly and justly address and resolve the festering issues of today.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called upon faith-based institutions to overcome complacency and abandon the anesthetizing security of remaining silent behind stained glass windows. He noted that to recapture authenticity and sacrificed spirit the church must not only be a thermometer, but a thermostat that transforms the mores of society. How many prophets need be sent before we take heed?
Robert E. Wells Jr. is a Belleville attorney and ambassador for Racial Harmony, a civic group dedicated to promoting diversity and understanding in the metro-east community.