Tuesday, January 18, 2005

What MLK means to DFA

Martin’s life was a wildfire streaking across the American landscape. His hypnotic voice was a paean to America’s soul, and his faith in her values shone like a beacon fire on a storm-tossed shore to a nation lost at sea. His passionate leadership established a standard and a legend that still outshines all who followed where he led. In his tragically short years, he gave hope to those who endured generations of oppression and degradation. Standing at the head of an army united by resolve and hope, he led with wisdom instead of a sword. Few have ever lived life so fully or used their brief time so selflessly. In the annals of history few have achieved such well-deserved acclaim, for few have lived their principles so well.

The impulse to see Martin as a larger than life, protean figure is magnified by the growing distance of time. Some have called Martin America’s Gandhi. The comparison is apt in many ways. Both worked to free a people from the oppression of an imperialistic order. They both fought the tyranny of racism and class divisions. Both led with spiritual vigor and fought injustice with ethical judo. Both recognized that nothing exposed injustice so clearly as non-violent resistance. Both realized that the bonds of an unjust political order could not be broken without overthrowing an iniquitous and cruel economic order. Both were hated as passionately as they were loved. And both ended their lives as martyrs to a political project whose promise remains unfulfilled.

Yet Gandhi seems an ethereal being, untouched by the passions and concerns of men. His legendary asceticism and self-discipline – to the point of nearly starving himself to death for his cause – sets him so far apart from the ordinary clade of men, that to aspire to be like Gandhi is to aspire to sainthood; it verges on hubris. But Martin, outside the glare of the public eye, was not a perfect man. He was a sinful man, often a weak man; and for that we must be grateful. Beneath the veneer of his legend beats the heart of flawed and decidedly unsaintly man, much like ourselves.

Martin was no saint in homespun and spectacles. He was just a person like you or me. No better, certainly, and in some ways, maybe worse. Yet this flawed and fleshly being produced an extraordinary effect on the world. Despite not being a saint, Martin was able to change the world and inspire a nation. The legacy Martin left us is even more extraordinary because it was left by one like us. But Martin’s legacy is not an achievement; it is a work in progress to which each of us must add our part.

Though he was just a man, Martin was able to climb his mountain. Why can’t we do likewise? Martin’s life tells us that we can. We may not be Gandhis, but we too can have a dream. And if we have the courage to share that dream, and live that dream, we too can inspire our fellow citizens. Inside each of us is the self-same spark that in Martin became a mighty blaze.

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