05/31/2015 10:04 pm ET Updated May 31, 2016

Needed: Prophetic Voices

Stephen F. Somerstein via Getty Images

Last week, I went back to Oberlin for my 50th reunion (!) where much of the weekend was a celebration and retrospective of our graduation ceremony in 1965, whose commencement speaker was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was one of his greatest speeches.

Oberlin was not just the first college in the U.S. to accept African Americans but the first to welcome women. As luck would have it, the commencement speakers half a century later in 2015 were two strong black women, Marian Wright Edelman, founder and still president of the Children's Defense Fund, who had worked with Dr. King as a young civil rights lawyer, and first lady Michelle Obama.

Ms. Edelman was the official speaker. The first lady was a late addition. She came to give Oberlin recognition for its work mentoring low income and minority high school students so that they could attend college.

When Dr. King spoke in June of 1965, it was just three months after Selma, and two months after LBJ's "We Shall Overcome" speech, demanding that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act. Oberlin had been a key stop on the Underground Railroad. A century later, many Oberlin students went to Mississippi to register voters. In my senior year over Christmas break, several of my classmates went to that state to rebuild a black church that had been firebombed to the ground.

Dr. King's speech was titled, "Staying Awake Through a Revolution." His metaphor was Washington Irving's story of Rip van Winkel. He said in part:

The thing that we usually remember about this story is that Rip Van Winkle slept 20 years. But there is another point in that story that is almost always completely overlooked: it was a sign on the inn in the little town on the Hudson from which Rip went up into the mountain for his long sleep. When he went up, the sign had a picture of King George III of England. When he came down, years later, the sign had a picture of George Washington, the first president of the United States. When Rip looked up at the picture of George Washington, he was completely lost; he knew not who he was. This reveals to us that the most striking fact about the story of Rip Van Winkle is not that he slept 20 years, but that he slept through a revolution... There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.

He said a lot more, of course, and you should read it for yourself.

After three days of symposia and discussions about Dr. King's legacy, I was left with two thoughts.

First, the loss of Martin Luther King, in 1968 to an assassin's bullet, feels even more incalculable now than at the time. People who can address great public questions in convincingly moral terms, with an authentic prophetic voice, who can challenge people and nations to become their best selves, do not come around often enough. In my lifetime, I can count them on the fingers of one hand and have one finger left over -- Gandhi, Mandela, Havel, King.

For the class of 2015, these are historic, almost mythic figures to be studied in classrooms, as legendary as Roosevelt or even Lincoln were to my generation. But these people were real, and they made a massive difference.

When Dr. King was murdered, he was in the process of connecting civil rights to economic justice. Both causes represent America's terrible unfinished business. We have made halting progress on civil rights since 1965, but on economic justice America has gone almost straight backwards.

One can think of many leaders who deserve our respect and our thanks, but I can't think of a single prophetic voice on a par with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King was just 36 when he gave that speech. If he had lived, he would be 86 today. Imagine what his prophetic voice might have accomplished had he lived into the 21st century.

My second conclusion was affirmation of my decision that I didn't want to watch the movie, Selma -- for the simple reason that nobody can play Dr. King like Dr. King. And because the King family, astonishingly, managed to win a court ruling that allowed them to copyright Dr. King's "I have a Dream speech," the producers of the film, rather than pay exorbitant royalties, decided that they would paraphrase what he actually said. You are better off reading or watching King in the original.

Marian Wright Edelman and Michelle Obama, by the way, were just terrific. The first lady gave a speech that was tougher and more uplifting than what her husband has had to say lately. The first lady charged the new graduates, in the same spirit that Dr. King had charged us half a century before, to become passionately engaged in the struggles of our time. She said in part:

After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.

....You might be tempted to just recreate what you had here at Oberlin -- to find a community of like-minded folks and work with them on causes you care about, and just tune out all of the noise....

But today, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens -- the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.

For example, think back to the struggle for women's suffrage and the story of a leading suffragist and Oberlin alum named Lucy Stone. People screamed at her. They spat on her. They even threw prayer books at her as she tried to speak. Her opponents declared that letting women vote was "unnatural," would lead to child neglect and all kinds of social ills. So I'd say that debate was pretty polarized, wouldn't you?

And think about President Roosevelt's struggle to pass the New Deal a few decades later. FDR's plan for Social Security was called "socialist," a "fraud on the workingman." One opponent even stated that it would "end the progress of a great country." So that debate was pretty contentious, too.

And in the years before Dr. King addressed those Oberlin graduates in '65, he and his colleagues faced fire hoses and dogs in Montgomery, beatings on a bridge in Selma, insults and assaults as they sat quietly at lunch counters and marched peacefully down public streets.

And if you think today's gridlock is bad, let me remind you that it was a good century between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the passage of the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. And of all the women at the Seneca Falls women's suffrage convention in 1848, just one lived to see women cast their votes. Just one.

But these folks didn't let the ugliness and the obstacles deter them. They didn't just give up and retreat to the comfortable company of like-minded folks, because they understood that this is how democracy operates. It is loud and messy, and it's not particularly warm and fuzzy.

This time next year, we are going to be in the final stages of nominating candidates for president of the United States. The Democratic nominee is most likely to be Hillary Rodham Clinton, the wife of a former president. If this sort of thing becomes a habit, why not Michelle Robinson Obama?

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a visiting professor at Brandeis University's Heller School. His latest book is Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.

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