King's dream: it's all about us
The holiday honoring the birthday of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is as familiar as our route home.
Less well-known is how to move the tenets of King's words and deeds beyond annual bromides about race relations to his larger impact on individual lives.
King would have turned 74 this year. The flesh-and-blood King, not the media myth, would most certainly have grown too large for the narrow civil-rights box he's placed in today.
Those who wrongly see King's birthday as a black holiday miss the larger significance of his life. Yes, he helped launch a movement against legalized segregation. And yes, he was a black man. But he was also, as Time magazine called him, one of the nation's remarkable leaders. King believed the American dream went beyond equal justice to economic development, home ownership and a fine education.
Imagining how King would view things in the Puget Sound region is an exercise filled with possibilities.
King likely would have cheered the federal judge ruling Tuesday halting the deportations of thousands of Somalis. He would have listened compassionately to the arguments about defending ourselves in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. He would have consoled and comforted us in our fear. But, in the end, he would have spoken out unequivocally against singling out a country and its people without just cause. He might even have repeated these words from one of his speeches:
"Cowardice asks, is it safe? Expediency asks, is it politic? Vanity asks, is it popular? But conscience asks, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that it is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but one must do it because conscience says it is right!"
Our nation is at the brink of war. Our region struggles out of an economic dive. In facing both, we don't want to tear so deeply into the fabric of our lives that we spend the better part of the next few years repairing the damage.
The struggle to be both prudent and compassionate at times like these is a worthy battle.
Legislators may be struggling over the choices they must make, some of which will anger their constituencies and others which will anger their enemies. Perhaps this phrase from King provides direction:
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, King spoke of the value and importance of education. Decades later, the nation's institutions of higher education and its highest court are embroiled in a debate over affirmative action. President Bush's plan to file a brief against affirmative action is nothing less than disappointing.
If we dismantle a system of opportunity that takes into account the lingering impact of this nation's tortured history, we are turning a blind eye toward a child like King who skipped two grades and enrolled in college at age 15.
King's birthday is not simply a time to renew calls for justice and equality — although clearly it is that, too. It is a time to look back to where we were and marvel at how far we've come. It is astounding that in the span of five to six decades, we have gone from segregation to a place where possibilities for all people loom large.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice are African Americans holding two of the most powerful positions in the country. The world's biggest media company, AOL Time Warner, is run by Richard Parsons, an African American. Other large organizations, from American Express to Fannie Mae, run by Kenneth Chenault and Franklin Raines, respectively, show the rise of black Americans in corporations. The decisions coming out of the Federal Communications Commission are being made by FCC Chair Michael Powell, who, you guessed it, is black. The best birthday present to Dr. King is that this list could go on into every corner of professional and successful America.
Does this mean the end of disenfranchisement? Yes, for some. A resounding no, for others. King's dream was about all of us. Economic disparity persists. As King predicted, we are not all going to reach the promised land together. But examples of black people in places where they are viewed by the content of their character and not the color of their skin are heartening.
As we are reminded of this holiday with speeches, billboard ads and other things proclaiming Dr. King's message, it is also worth remembering that his message at its simplest was an insistence — resonating through all his speeches — that what ties us all together is greater than what separates us.
King should be more than an annual holiday. He should be a part of our lives.