This Monday is Martin Luther King Day.
It’s easy to think of Dr. King’s life and death as so long ago as to be barely relevant to us anymore.
He was born in 1929, and he was assassinated in 1968. Time moves incredibly oddly now, but that does seem like ages ago. Much of what Dr. King lived and fought and died for has been incorporated into our lives. The kind of blatant racism that he fought no longer is acceptable, at least publicly. The kind of segregation against which he struggled is dead. The language aimed at him and at other Black people, those poison-tipped pellets of hate speech, no longer are allowed in polite company.
It’s easy to forget how young Dr. King was when he was murdered. He’d be old now — he’d be turning 93 — but when he was shot, he was just 39. He never made it to middle age.
It’s also easy to forget how charismatic he was, and how extraordinary his speeches were. We no longer are used to oratory; by now, our ears and hearts and minds have been so coarsened that we do not flinch when our so-called leaders hurl ungrammatic, randomly capitalized poisoned word salad in our general direction, letting the noxious dressing splatter and stain wherever it lands.
But Dr. King’s language was revelatory, challenging, and uplifting.
He was a real person, not a saint, not an angel, not a sweet-tempered paragon of patience, not a symbol (although he’s been used to symbolize all sorts of things). His relationship with the Jewish community was real; the many photographs of him marching alongside rabbis — particularly Abraham Joshua Heschel, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Joachim Prinz, of Temple B’nai Abraham, then in Newark, now in Livingston. The relationship between those two giants, King and Prinz, seems to have been deep and real.
The world we live in now is not the same as the one in which Dr. King lived and died. That was also a deeply divided time — I leave it to scholars to tell us when it was more deeply divided, then, when we were riven by Vietnam and battered by assassinations, not only of Dr. King but also of John F. Kennedy and his brother Bobby. Now, we are riven by just about everything, and the hatred we feel for each other is terrifying in its intensity.
But when we feel despair, it can be healing — and deeply unsettling — to listen to some of Martin Luther King’s last speech. Its prescience is unnerving. But the power is undeniable, and there is much hope in that. I have no idea what the mountaintop he’s been to was, but it gave him clarity and hope.
Then, as now, our world trembles on a precipice. It was pulled back from it then. Let us hope that same miracle happens now. Then, Americans of good will came together to help make that miracle. We must do that again, if our democracy is to survive.
Dr. King knew that, and he continues to teach it to us.