Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is – or should be – a hero to all Americans.
Does that even need to be said anymore? Yes, apparently it still needs to be said, 89 years after his birth, almost 50 years after his assassination and 32 years since his birthday was first observed as a national holiday.
Our country still is tainted with racism – not just relics like Confederate statues, but real, living prejudice and hatred. But it is far better than it was in King’s lifetime. That is his great gift to America, and it benefits people of every color and kind.
The Civil Rights Movement led by King and others, and supported by millions in the 1950s and ’60s, began in an America later generations would hardly recognize.
Official federal, state and city government policies espoused and protected racism. They did so because our democratic system allowed them to. Elections put in charge white racist officials because white racist voters supported them. And in many places the system was rigged against African-Americans, robbing them of their voice.
King made himself their voice, ended their subdued silence, rose above the violent turmoil, and ultimately shook the nation out of its unjust and dangerous complacency.
At a time when some black leaders and activists preached hostility and separation, King knew better. The struggle must not be black against white, but black and white against racism. His speeches and actions, his leadership, his commitment to nonviolent resistance and protest opened the eyes and ears and minds of many white citizens.
Here was a black man who wrote and spoke like a modern Thomas Jefferson, and without that slave owner’s burden of hypocrisy. King was able to inspire Americans of every origin to the glorious cause of freedom and justice for all.
Yes, for all. Finally, for all.
Still, even many well-meaning whites failed to support the cause. King railed against the white moderates who preferred order to civil disobedience. But he and his followers persisted and eventually prevailed. They bequeathed to us a nation far from healed, but beginning to recover from its past.
That process continues. The giant steps taken in the ’50s and ’60s have faltered from time to time. Frustration still breaks out into violence. Why, after so many years, won’t bigotry die away?
Yet King remains a source of inspiration and hope, especially while his words and deeds survive in living hearts and minds. Grandparents of young adults, who are able to attend the schools and pursue the careers of their choice, remember them very well. Politicians, activists and scholars of that era are getting on in years, but keep alive the memory of a certain Baptist preacher who took on a cause that would transform society.
We haven’t yet arrived at King’s promised land of true equality, but we are much better off for having had him show us the way.
This editorial originally appeared in The Newport Daily News, a sister publication of The Independent.