As the nation reflects on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday that bears his name, my thoughts will return to a line from Public Enemy’s By the Time I Get to Arizona: “What’s a smilin’ face when a whole state’s racist?” The song - inspired by Arizona’s refusal to attach Dr. King’s name to the federal holiday in 1991 - still holds meaning for me because its release, and the debate surrounding it, occurred during my lifetime, within my own frame of memory. Yet today, we seldom hear about the difficulties associated with the establishment of a national holiday in Dr. King’s honor in 1991, or the fact that it was not until the year 2000 that MLK Day was officially recognized in all 50 states.
Still, the question remains “why” there would be any reluctance to honor Dr. King. I think we all would agree that he was a great man. I believe we all agree with his vision. And that’s mainly what we focus on during MLK Day. The “I Have a Dream” speech, the message of equality and inclusion. The optimism that America would eventually live up to the principles it was founded on in the Declaration of Independence, namely, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As Dr. King said in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:
We will reach the goal of freedom… all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom. Abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with the destiny of America. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched across the pages of history the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence, we were here. For more than two centuries our fore-parents labored here without wages; they made cotton king; and they built the homes of their masters in the midst of brutal injustice and shameful humiliation - and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop. If the inexpressible cruelties of slavery could not stop us, the opposition we now face will surely fail. We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands.
Dr. King was a modern-day founding father, one more intimately familiar to any of us than the great men that established this nation. Because although many of us do not remember Dr. King when he was alive, we are merely a generation or two removed from the man himself. Most of us have relatives who lived during Dr. King’s lifetime and can personalize his memory far more fully than anyone can of the original founding fathers. But what if no one has done that for you. What else is there? What do we miss with the passing of time? What can we draw on to capture his legacy and appreciate his life even more than an annual day of remembrance provides? That is what I have tried to educate my junior personnel about on Martin Luther King Day.
I cannot comprehend Dr. King’s America, it is simply a world I would not recognize. It was an America where open racism was tolerated and unequal treatment accepted. But if I can not fully grasp this, how do I explain it to my crew? I read the documents left behind by Dr. King that shed a light on his life and explain his motives. In Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King provided a record of life in the segregated South and his reasons for pushing against the establishment:
I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging facts of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year old son asking in agonizing pathos: "Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?"; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness;" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleekness of corroding despair. I hope, Sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
That is what I want them to understand. That the world they live in is far different, and far better, but still not perfect. That there is a legacy of inequality and injury in our nation, one that is still not healed and flares up periodically when instances of injustice re-appear today. And I want them to know the “what” Dr. King was fighting against.
I also want them to be able to grasp why Dr. King was not universally accepted, which I think is hard for most of us to fully understand today. We don’t see Dr. King as a revolutionary, we see him as a visionary. But we also know how the story ends. We see the fruits of his labor. But just like our original founding fathers, Dr. King was a revolutionary. He was leading the charge against the tyranny of the “Jim Crow” laws of the South. He broke the laws of segregation to shine a light on the nation’s inability to live up to its own ideals. He challenged the system. So, while we assume support for Dr. King should have been universal, it was not. His tactics were questioned and his support was limited. Again, drawing from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was "well-timed," according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never."
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask, "how can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."
Dr. King didn’t just challenge the authors of the segregation policies in the South. He also challenged the “Silent Majority” - those who agreed with the message, but did not take an active role. He especially decried the lack of support from white moderates, concluding “I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”
And that is another lesson I want my officers and enlisted to learn. That not taking an active role in anything means accepting the status quo. Things may get no worse, but they will certainly get no better. Dr. King made things better, but he had to stand up against timidity as well as open hostility. Yet standing up to those forces put him at great risk and required him to make extra-ordinary sacrifices.
Dr. King was certainly one of the “Great Men” of history, whose actions forever changed the outcome of events. Yet today, Dr. King is a television clip; a picture; a statue; a quote; a memory.
But he was also a man. A man with the same dreams, desires and fears of any one of us. Dr. King didn’t have to be one of those “Great Men” of history. He could have opted for that long life we all dream of, and he almost did. In a passage in his autobiography, Dr. King chronicles just how close he came. Unable to sleep after receiving a threatening phone call, he went to his kitchen and thought about the wife and daughter that could be taken away from him at any moment. Ready to quit, he began to pray to God:
"Lord, I'm down here trying to do what's right. I think I'm right. I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But Lord, I must confess that I'm weak now, I'm faltering. I'm losing my courage. Now, I am afraid. And I can't let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone."
It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: "Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you. Even until the end of the world."
Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.
That kitchen table prayer was in 1958. Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. That means for 10 long years, he risked his life – and his family’s safety – on a daily basis to continue fighting for what was right. Could you do that? Could you do that if three days after that revelation your house was bombed while your wife and daughter were sleeping? As a father, if my daughters’ safety were threatened, then no, I probably could not. And for anyone who is a father, I am sure you understand why. But Dr. King did. And that is another part of “why” Dr. King was a great man; “why” he is such an inspiration; and “why” he is someone I try to emulate.
As a nation, we set aside a day each year to remember Dr. Martin Luther King. But to truly honor his legacy we need to treat each other with respect and fight for what is right every day, because as Dr. King said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” For myself, I am lucky because our military demands it; but we all must also recognize that our nation deserves it.
Commander Jones is a Federal Executive Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Navy or Department of Defense.