Thoughts on Martin Luther King Day

As Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday approaches, my thoughts turn not toward him but toward Bob Moses. No, not Robert Moses the highway megalomaniac, but Bob Moses the civil rights leader.

He is the one civil rights hero whose life touched against mine, though merely in the most casual way. I remember him only as a good shortstop on what passed for our Philosophy Department softball team. He could have lived a comfortable ordinary life, but instead he chose to become a civil rights activist, leading voter registration drives in Mississippi, most notably the Freedom Summer project of 1964. The work he did was often laborious and frustrating. Danger was everywhere. Jailings and beatings came with the territory.

I would read about his activities from time to time. I learned that he shunned public exposure, but within the civil rights movement he became a legend.

Remembering Bob Moses is hard. It makes me think of the dark and lonely back roads of the Deep South during the '60s, roads that led into a netherworld of lawlessness – or worse than lawlessness, for the law was on the side of injustice; roads on which three young civil-rights workers could be stopped and taken off to be murdered. It makes me think of communities brimming with hate and rage and riddled with dangers for anyone who would challenge the viciously racist status quo.

In this evil arena, hundreds upon hundreds of civil rights workers from ordinary walks of life put themselves on the line. Some (including Bob Moses) gave months and years and emerged better for the experience. Others gave their lives, such as Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, students just mentioned who were murdered after being waylaid by a gang of racist thugs; or Viola Liuzzo, a Michigan housewife and mother who was shot after the Selma march. And too many others.

Remembering Bob Moses takes me to the dark recesses of my mind, where deep truths lie, and makes me ask myself, "Could I have done that?" Hell no – I couldn't have done that; but there were better people than I who could, and did, and they delivered a social revolution.

Among them of course was Martin Luther King. But he was only the most prominent among the heroes and martyrs of the civil rights movement.
In fact, he was sometimes criticized, especially by local civil-rights leaders who mocked him as "de Lawd." They resented his sweeping through a city and leaving the local workers behind to shoulder the fearsome day-to-day burden of fighting the racist establishment without the media attention that MLK enjoyed.

Of course Martin Luther King was an outstanding leader and a world-class orator of historical dimensions. But to regard him as the be-all and end-all of the civil rights movement is a mistake.

Our mistaken emphasis on Martin Luther King is never so clear as when we refer to him as "Dr. King."

Why do we call a person "Doctor?" Because we want to erect a wall of separation between that person and others. We imply that only the Doctor, and nobody outside the particular field in question, is qualified to judge and participate. When we're talking about medical doctors this separation is justified, to be sure. And it is justified in other fields as well, nuclear physics for example.

But in the case of Martin Luther King, calling him "Doctor" is an evasion of responsibility. Not only does his doctorate have virtually nothing to do with the reason we honor him but, more to the point, it has virtually nothing to do with the difference between him and the rest of us. He inspired us; he had great leadership skills; he displayed courage and perseverance. All this grew out of what he was as a person; his doctorate was a mere footnote to his life. (Similarly for Jane Goodall, who has come absurdly to be called "Dr. Goodall," though her doctorate is an afterthought to the courage and accomplishments of her life.) And these qualities that made him great are qualities that all of us can claim, at least to some extent, if only we commit to achieving justice.

When we talk of "Doctor King" we are putting a distance between his accomplishments and our possibilities. We are saying that he strove and sacrificed and accomplished in a way that we never could – and therefore we are excused from trying.

Our recognition of Martin Luther King should be a challenge, not an excuse.

By focusing all our attention and adulation on Martin Luther King this holiday, we slight the sacrifice and the accomplishments of all the other individuals in the movement – all those others who left their everyday lives to work and sacrifice for racial justice.

By idolizing the "Great Man" we minimize the role and the responsibility of everyone else. We assume that change is made only by special people and that those in more ordinary walks of life and with more mundane talents cannot affect change and need not try.

But people in ordinary walks of life can rise to extraordinary heights of achievement. Civil rights workers demonstrated that; Martin Luther King can be an emblem of their sacrifice and accomplishments – a challenge, not an excuse. His memory can challenge us to follow their example, as my remembering Bob Moses challenged me. If they were willing to risk their lives, we should be willing to work and sacrifice in order to inch our society toward the ideals of justice and humanity.

To show a proper regard for the civil rights movement and to enliven its meaning for us, we might enlarge Martin Luther King Day to make it Heroes and Martyrs Day, dedicated to all those who have worked and sacrificed in exceptional ways for the cause of justice and on behalf of their fellow human beings. . This would move us toward the time when we might say, to paraphrase Pogo's friend, "We have met our heroes, and they are us."

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Volume 3, Issue 1, Posted 4:04 AM, 01.07.07