LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Martin Luther King Jr. and Black Lives Matter

It was Aug. 28, 1963, and the place was the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The featured speaker was scheduled to give the last speech of the night, and after a long, eventful day, some of the tired attendees had already left.

Martin Luther King Jr. told others he wanted to deliver a “sort of Gettysburg Address.”

Knowing how important this speech could potentially be, trusted advisor Wyatt Walker and a committee of writers policed King’s remarks to make sure that what he said was worthy of the occasion. Mahalia Jackson, for example, had seen King use the “dream references” before in Detroit, and urged him to use them. Walker sternly warned against it, arguing it would render an important speech embarrassingly “trite” and “cliché.”

When Rabbi Joachim Prinz finished his remarks, Martin Luther King Jr. took the long walk up to the podium and faced his audience. The carefully crafted speech Martin carried that night was the product of a team of trusted professionals. He gazed out at the largest crowd Washington had ever seen and that he had ever addressed — 250,000 people, at least 70,000 of whom were white. Behind the cameras and microphones were millions more, watching from homes and auditoriums across the country.

Luckily for his cause, Martin Luther King Jr. ignored the professional elite and went with his heart. He skipped much of the prepared text and ad-libbed 50 percent or more of his remarks, and most importantly, included the “I had a dream” theme. What led him to do this? Perhaps he was so moved by an enthusiastic crowd? There are other explanations. As a spiritual person, I have always personally credited the intervention of the eternal — the hand of God.

In any case, few knew about that last-minute change. “I have a dream,” as the speech henceforth was and will forever be known, electrified the audience and the world, and was the beginning of the end of segregation in America. King’s address was followed in time by the greatest era of civil rights legislation and enforcement since the end of Reconstruction.

How did he do that? While arguing for his people’s rights and the nation’s wrongs, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke as a parent to a nation of parents, explaining what he wanted for his children. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation, where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

King also appealed as a patriot to our shared American past: He quoted what he called “the magnificent Declaration of Independence” and approvingly quoted the song “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing; land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrims’ pride, from ev’ry mountainside, let freedom ring.” The “I Have a Dream speech” sealed Martin Luther King Jr. in the pantheon of others who condemned racism in the strongest possible language, but in the context of what his countrymen held dear.

Like Frederick Douglass, Marian Anderson, Jackie Robinson and others who made a difference, King decided to work within the system and made best use of white allies. King appealed to the best instincts of our national consciousness. In other words, Martin Luther King Jr. embraced, believed, accepted and used the concept of American exceptionality.

American exceptionality does not rest solely on national documents, including the influential Declaration of Independence. Other nations also have inspiring documents, including the defunct Soviet Union and the debased United Nations, and it, apparently, for them doesn’t make a difference. They both were and are morally bankrupt.

American Exceptionality does not imply that all of our citizens are good or that we don’t make mistakes. Like all countries of the world, we have our share of bigots and fools, who are capable of enormous evil.

After all, there were Americans who would have let slavery and segregation stand, and many others who were indifferent to the evil they did, but they were stopped by good people. There were U.S. citizens who massacred Native Americans. While horrible injustices were done, good people of all backgrounds have fought for their cause.

Europe and other places, to their shame, have for millennia permitted persecutions, which, in the end, resulted in a holocaust of minorities. Some from that blighted continent participated, many were indifferent, and the few good people were not numerous or assertive enough to make a much of a difference.

That is the gist of American exceptionality — we are blessed with a significant number of citizens who actually believe that they are personally responsible for making our nation freer and more livable. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream speech” resonated with this essential core group – and that is why it was so historically successful.

Some have rejected the dream and instead see a nightmare, irredeemably racist and malevolent, here and abroad. The Nation of Islam, one example, could not see its activists marching with white Christians and Jews, and did not join the March on Washington. Black Power’s Stokely Carmichael — later known as Kwame Ture —— moved to Africa and ended up supporting murderous African dictators against their oppressed citizenry. The Black Panthers degenerated into just another street gang, deep into drugs and the protection racket, with a record of murder and rape to their credit.

Today’s “Black Lives Matter” describes itself as a descendant of the above. As an organization, it considers attention paid to the horrific rates of black-on-black inner-city murder rates a “diversion.” Ironically, unless an African American is killed by a policeman, this movement does not believe black lives matter. It is not that they are so much pro-black, as anti-mainstream-white and mercilessly anti-blue.

While the whole nation is horrified when unarmed blacks are murdered by rogue police, Black Lives Matter instead sees this as part of a conspiracy. While the whole nation is horrified when rogue “activists” ambush and kill policemen – black, white or brown – Black Lives Matter is conspicuously silent.

Martin Luther King Jr. believed that America was a seriously flawed beacon of hope for the peoples of the world. On the other hand, “Black Lives Matter,” like its black liberation predecessors, sees America as the world’s greatest purveyor of racism and oppression.

The legacy of Dr. King, Frederick Douglass and others, I would argue, calls for the continued engagement and the development of a broad popular alliance within an essentially American context. That is what ended slavery and segregation, and is irreplaceable as the means to change and improvement of our country for all its people.

Larry Koch

“Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Revolution” will be the topic of the Dover Library’s History Book Club meeting Thursday at 4 p.m. Want to learn more about the topic? Hear from participants in the Civil Rights struggle, share experiences and readings, and agree or disagree or with Dr. Koch’s article. For more information, call 335-8344.

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