King’s indomitable spirit
Nearly half a century has passed since an assassin’s bullet struck down Martin Luther King Jr., and in the intervening years his legacy and the resonance of his message have steadily grown.
That is underscored by the dozen or more observances going on this weekend and through next week to honor King, whose birthday has been marked annually by a national holiday since 1986.
King devoted his life – and gave it, ultimately – to fight for equality for African Americans who by law and custom were denied it. The power of his rhetoric, the intensity of his passion, this rejection of violence and embrace of civil disobedience, helped to shape and ultimately win the struggle.
King laid out his philosophy in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” in April 1963 as violent reaction to the civil rights movement was mounting throughout the South and many blacks were talking of more violent tactics.”
“I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community,” he wrote. “One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self respect and a sense of ‘somebodiness’ that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle-class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence ... Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible ‘devil.’
“I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the ‘do nothingism’ of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest.”
King hewed to that middle way in the face of ferocious persecution and provocation. But at times the forces arrayed against him and the cause of equality overwhelmed his message.
He had warned, in that Birmingham letter, of the dangers those who rejected justice posed.
“I am further convinced that if our white brothers dismiss as ‘rabble rousers’ and ‘outside agitators’ those of us who employ nonviolent direct action, and if they refuse to support our nonviolent efforts, millions of Negroes will, out of frustration and despair, seek solace and security in black nationalist ideologies--- a development that would inevitably lead to a frightening racial nightmare.”
To some, that racial nightmare enveloped cities in the immediate aftermath of his murder.
But the United States ultimately lived up to its foundational promise that “all men area created equal” with far less violence than might have happened because of the indomitable spirit of the man we honor this week.