I wasn’t going to write about Dr. Martin Luther King, as I didn’t think that I was overly qualified to speak on the matter. After all, I liive in New Hampshire, one of the whitest states in the nation. I don’t recall even meeting any black people until college, and getting to know any until after that point. For a very large portion of my life, race relations and racial issues have been pretty abstract to me.
But after seeing and hearing all the things being discussed yesterday, I believe I have something to say. And even from up here, race matters. After all, in Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, New Hampshire was given the lead, the place of honor, in his citation of states:
From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring. From the mighty mountains of New York, let freedom ring. From the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring. But not only that: Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
One of the more unusual things I’ve noticed is that, for a man who spoke so much of uniting America, his legacy has become a point of division and contention. And that troubles me.
Over the last couple of days, partisan people on both ends of the political spectrum tried to tie their side’s policies and beliefs to Dr. King, saying that he would agree with them and reject the other. Some of the brighter people on the right did this, as did some of the shriller, whinier elements of the left. And as someone who was born, raised, and will most likely die among those prodigious hilltops, I feel a smidgen of responsibility to kick in my two cents.
Dr. King said a lot of things in the course of his life, and believed in a great many things. I think that to try to link him to any single ideology would be to do a grave disservice to him and his legacy.
Dr. King, as I said, strove to be a uniter. And in that spirit, I can’t see him foresaking his causes and growing too entangled in either party. Overall, he might end up supporting more Democrats than Republicans, but I don’t see him becoming as intertwined with the Democrats as, say, Jesse Jackson has. (Not to mention the idea of him becoming a shakedown artist on Jackson’s scale is utterly repugnant.)
But I can see him meeting with, supporting, and counseling leaders of both parties, supporting initiatives of both sides as they fit his agenda and his vision, denouncing those that conflicted — but always on a case-by-case basis. Much like Billy Graham, a conservative who nonetheless was sought out by Republicans and Democrats alike, Dr. King would be seen as a “fair man,” one who could be trusted and respected by all. And I can see him having a tremendous amount of pride and affection for Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the child of a southern black minister like him, who has risen to a mere four heartbeats from the presidency. A black woman who represents America to the world.
Maybe I’m just doing the same thing Gene and Oliver are doing, and projecting my own ideals and beliefs on to Dr. King. It’s a natural instinct, to try to affiliate one’s most sincerely held beliefs with someone whom one respects, even reveres. When that person also happens to be safely dead for decades, and killed for their beliefs, it’s even more tempting to tie their legacy to your causes.
But that does the memory of him a grave disservice. Dr. King’s legacy is not the exclusive property of Democrats or Republicans. It doesn’t belong to blacks or whites. It is all of ours, even those who revile him still to this day.
And it is something we must all learn to share, or we will shatter it — and then it will belong to no one, and be lost to the ages.