MY TRIBUTE TO MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.
Few people in American history have not only risen to national prominence in service to a great cause but have also delivered oratory and rhetoric so profound as to transform the hearts and minds of people the world round. Martin Luther King, Jr. is just such a transformational figure. He stands shoulder to shoulder with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln in that regard. Like King, Jefferson and Lincoln’s rhetoric transcend the ages and propound lasting truths of undeniable force.
Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, in a few short sentences encapsulated the definition of just government: “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—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The rhetoric is profound, deeply meaningful, and establishes for all time the standard to which a free people must repair.
Abraham Lincoln’s every speech contains with it rhetoric so profound that it pierces to the heart and mind alike and leaves there an indelible impression that uplifts and transforms. Who can deny the force of these few words from his Second Inaugural address concerning his unwavering commitment to achieve victory over secession: “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’" Or these from that same extraordinary speech reflective of his magnanimity as the Civil War came to a close: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Or from his House Divided Speech at the start of his unsuccessful campaign to unseat “The Little Giant,” Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a campaign that nonetheless catapulted Lincoln to national fame and the Republican nomination for President: “’A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” Perhaps the greatest, most succinct work of rhetoric in world history is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a towering achievement penned on a napkin while Lincoln sped from Washington to the recent scene of the battle by train to deliver what he thought would be a speech no one would remember but who could forget words that consecrate the lives of all Americans then, and since, who have died so that they, their families, and others might be free: “ . . . that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
And then there is the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., from our time, who consciously filled the role of the new Moses in the churches throughout the South and defeated with creative non-violence the Jim Crow era’s remnants of cruel bigotry and racism. King’s most famous of all speeches, his “I Have a Dream” speech, is a work of genius for all time, echoing through the ages such powerful truths as the undeniable injustice of judging a person by skin color rather than merit: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
There is, however, another speech, from among the many he delivered that prove words can topple injustice, a speech that reverberates through my mind often. A single day before he was assassinated, on April 3, 1968, he delivered his famous Mason Temple speech in Memphis, Tennessee replete with conviction and humor in support of striking sanitation workers. There is in this speech a solemn premonition of his imminent demise. His words foretold his own death and they track closely the Old Testament event when Moses having reached the mountain top overlooking the promised land was taken by the Lord before having reached that land of promise for the Israelites. King said:“Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter to me now.
Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
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Unquestionably, it is good to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He opened closed eyes to the ugly reality of racism and bigotry, and he advanced the cause of liberty by calling for all regardless of race, creed, or color to enjoy equal justice under law. He led by an example of peaceful resistance to the injustice that overwhelmingly surrounded him and his race, and he led by the power of persuasion over vile invective or military belligerence. He disarmed the armed by shaming them before nationally televised audiences. Eugene “Bull” Connor’s brutal crushing of a peaceful protest with fire hoses and police attack dogs achieved a Pyrrhic Victory because all of America watched the footage with shock and dismay, even hearts cold with racism warmed to the reality of its injustice.
King was one of the greatest rhetoricians in the history of the world, whose words will never be forgotten. Those words have taught, and will continue to teach, profound lessons to people of the world for every generation to come. He, like Jefferson and Lincoln, overcame the grave because his words are resurrected to combat deprivations of liberty in perpetuity.
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