09/01/2010 08:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Honoring Martin Luther King: Reflections on the 'Restoring Honor Rally'

The "Restoring Honor" rally held on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28 came 47 years to the day after the March on Washington. On that earlier day, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed "I have a dream... " and laid out a vision that "little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." On the more recent day, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin honored our nation's men and women in arms and God-given, hard-won freedom. Seeing the symbolism of the day and location, Palin noted that "we feel the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr... " Beck felt a sense of divine providence in the rally occurring on the historical date it did.

Cynics may find in the Beck-Palin rally a misappropriation of the King name and legacy. Supporters may find a commonality in the resounding call to honor and freedom. Both should be careful to remember King for what he aimed to do and how he aimed to do it. If they are faithful to that, they have rightly invoked the spirit of Dr. King. If unfaithful, they dishonor his memory and legacy.

King's message was one of inclusion. He demanded that America honor its founding documents by including Negroes in the full meaning of "all men are created equal." But inclusiveness went beyond the demand for equal rights. King wanted more than desegregation; he wanted blacks and whites to live together -- not just in nationhood but in brotherhood. As he said in May of 1963, "... a desegregated society that is not integrated... gives us a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts are apart." Any rally on the mall that invokes King's memory should preach inclusion and be inclusive in those welcomed to attend.

King's life was a tribute to the power of love. In the face of racism and hate, he demanded that Negroes love their oppressors, as members of the human race. Violent language and acts were not accepted, condoned, ignored or explained away, whether practiced by blacks or whites. Hate only breeds hate, King said. As he said, "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." Any rally on the mall honoring King must speak of loving our fellow human beings, regardless of their race, sex, sexual orientation, religion, or politics.

King believed in the social gospel, that our work on earth must bring peace and justice to the less fortunate. Religion was useless if confined to Sunday mornings at church. Any rally on the mall honoring King must seek justice, both for those who are citizens of this nation but as well for those of other nations. As King's life progressed, so did his moral horizon. After winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he dedicated himself to this broader vision, despite criticism that he was weakening the civil rights movement. Any rally on the mall honoring King must be compassionate toward people of all nations, which for King would most certainly have included those whose skin colors were yellow and brown as well as black and white.

King was a product of the Christian faith, yet it expanded his love of other religions rather than closing him off to them. In his travels to Africa and India, as in his visits to synagogues and faith centers in this country, he embraced Jews and Muslims as sisters and brothers. He would have condemned the burning of a mosque or the desecration of a temple no less than the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Any rally on the mall honoring King must be ecumenical. When Palin noted that King had "a solid foundation of faith in the one true God of justice," one hopes she intended this in the way King lived it.

King also demanded change. Just as he was intent on integration, not just desegregation, he campaigned for economic justice not just equality of opportunity. His last rally in Washington, which assassination condemned him to miss, was the Poor People's Campaign. He also pledged his life to a world without nuclear weapons. Any rally on the mall honoring King needs to honor this demand for dramatic change. In this sense, he would have found Palin's statement that "we must not fundamentally transform America" as setting the bar too low for what God expects of us in the world.

King also demanded that the federal government use its power for good. He saw government as an ally, as long as it stood on the side of moral right. The March on Washington was designed to put pressure on Congress to pass the Civil Rights bill that President Kennedy had finally put forward. Any rally on the mall honoring King must acknowledge that the federal government, rightly led, can be a powerful force for good. Hating the government, to King, was no less despicable than hating one's fellow human being. Governments are, after all, composed of human beings.

Finally, King stood in the shadow of Lincoln on that day in 1963. As perhaps no American since Lincoln, King practiced the moral duty of forgiveness. Both men understood human error and frailty. Lincoln, in his Second Inaugural, called for "malice toward none and charity for all." King, in his speech, asked not for retribution against whites but that all of us "be able to join hands." If we would honor King as we stand on the National Mall, we must forgive not condemn our fellow Americans. Only then will all of us be, as King prophesized, "Free at Last!"