There are so many different images of Martin Luther King Jr. One is the classic view of him in the '60s addressing thousands of people in the Washington, D.C. national mall. Probably that sums up his popular image throughout the world. Now we've just observed his birthday once again in a national holiday. He is enshrined in our popular imaginatio. If there were acknowledged saints in the world, he would be one.
But do we know him? I did, and feel that we are missing a huge chunk of his purpose and meaning. In my view the celebrity side largely misses the point of his life. He stood among us as a real person. Let's count the ways. He was a disciplined schola who worked his way up through the educational process. He clearly had a poetic side in a world that stands in considerable awe of poetry as an institution but is uncomfortable with its ebb and flow. He was an ordained Christian pastor with a built-in sense of service to others and stewardship of gifts. He was shockingly courageous in civil rights, he antiwar movement and an open embrace of nonviolence in public and personal lives.
It was nonviolence that first connected us. In New Orleans in 1961 a group of black and white Episcopal priests decided to become engaged in what was called a Freedom Ride. This was a social phenomenon designed to test and, if necessary, oppose racial segregation in specific situations. It drew the participation of a wide number of individuals including students, faculty, clergy and many others. Dr. King provided instruction about nonviolence for us as we embarked on our witness. I remember how struck I was by his assertion that "nonviolence is implicit in the way you pick up and answer the telephone." This was completely new territory for me and it changed my life.
Early in the summer of 1965, Dr. King invited a small group of civil rights activists to Selma, Ala., for a meeting. I was among them. All of us spoke briefly and exchanged information and ideas. This is where I had my most vivid recollection of Dr. King. It remains my most lasting one. Walking into the room where we gathered, he spent no time on charisma. He spoke to us quietly and thoughtfully, always as equals. I remember vividly my lasting impression. He appeared sweaty and tired but also sharply focused on why we were there and what he wanted to tell us. He was informal, his shirtsleeves rolled up, neck open. Unforgettably, also present in our group was Jonathan Daniels, a youthful seminarian, with whom I became friends. But soon afterwards I traveled to Keene, N.H., to attend his funeral. He had been shot to death by a white supremacist.
At the Selma conference I met a simpler and, I thought, more authentic Martin Luther King than I did in headlines and national television. I was grateful for the opportunity. The pressures on him must have been enormous. In fact, the stone statue of Dr. King that is now a permanent exhibit in the national mall in the nation's capitol reflects the existence of almost totally differing images of him in public consciousness. This "official" statue portrays a demanding, charismatic, utterly forceful figure, a man for the ages. I am grateful that I shared a moment with him when he wasn't playing a kind of Mt. Rushmore role. In other words, he wasn't being mighty or overwhelming but was humbler, kinder, more accessible, it seemed a more authentic kind of human presence.
The last time I was with Dr. King was on Feb. 6, 1968 in Washington, D.C. A group of clergy and laity, following his public opposition to the Vietnam war, were demonstrating for peace inside Arlington cemetery, directly below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A federal appelate court had just rejected our appeal for permission to hold a formal memorial service for the war dead. Ironically, one might say the Theatre of the Absurd translated into political life with this court order.
I believe Dr. King represented a last chance for Christianity to be a way of life, a living religion, in the 21st century world. Violence, he wrote, is "a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy." I find this precise as a hammer hitting a nail. He believed that hate cannot drive out hate; only love can. Racism he described as "total estrangement." The answer, he said, can only be found in "persistent, trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness." These remain the truest words I have ever heard on the subject.
There was something of a young Moses about Dr. King as he taught and led us, struggling to make us want to reach the promised laand that he saw. He will stand, in my opinion, as a more lasting figure in American history than any U.S. president who served in his lifetime.
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