Point Austin: The Heroic Legacy of Martin Luther King

In a dark time, looking to King’s example for inspiration

Point Austin: The Heroic Legacy of Martin Luther King

The latest, still-simmering outrage from the Trump White House was particularly shameful, in that it happened within a few days of our annual national commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. The spectacle of a U.S. president describing entire nations as "shitholes" – nations that just happen to be populated by people of color – is bad enough; much worse are the policies that are founded on such racism. Those policies range from bans on Muslims, to federal crackdowns on immigrants, to rejection of "DREAMers," to continuing repression of minority voting rights, to cutbacks on health care …

If all this were not enough, on the following day, when issuing the King Day proclamation, the president had the gall to declare: "Today, we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth we are all created equal by God" (emphasis mine). Trump clearly didn't write those words, but his self-blindness and arrogance in reading them is reflective of a daily White House drumbeat of similar hypocrisy.

Although the primary assignment of this column is Austin news and commentary, all too often of late the national context has been imposing itself on all of us, and making local politics an exercise in defense against the darkness emanating from Washington. When the president unleashes racist bromides in the national media, he grants unspoken permission for worse from local apologists for racism; when our neighbors endure family breakup and arbitrary deportation, those federal actions undermine the public safety and peace of the entire community; when our local officials are threatened with arrest and prosecution for defending basic human rights, the drift toward outright tyranny is unmistakable.

Waiting for Daybreak

This week, rather than dwell on those outrages, we can find some comfort and encouragement in reflecting on the work of King, who literally sacrificed his life in the cause of freedom and justice. In 1963 he wrote, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

We're certainly in a moment of challenge. Every reader will have a particular King touchstone; this week I looked back at his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and found a few of my own. "I accept this award today," he said, "with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. … I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. …

"I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land."

Work to Be Done

On the night of April 4, 1968, I was an Indiana University freshman, doing a work-study shift in the Bloomington Lib­rary, when we learned that King had been shot and killed in Memphis. At the time, like many of my young friends, I admired King but thought him insufficiently "radical" or "revolutionary" … yet I found myself inexplicably breaking down in tears at the news of his death, simultaneously saddened and perplexed at my own reaction, and not fully comprehending the meaning of his life or death.

Perhaps I still don't entirely comprehend that meaning, but in retrospect my immature condescension seems childish to me now, painfully aware that I don't possess either the courage or dedication of Dr. King. But I am certain that King's name will be honored in history long after Trump, his administration, his feckless enablers in and out of the White House, and his racist sycophants are consigned to the historical disgrace they have so richly earned. Everyone recalls and cites King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" as a call to justice in action; no one remembers the condescending op-ed that provoked King's letter, written by white clergymen who called the Civil Rights protests "unwise and untimely."

In the coming months, we definitely face plenty more resistance work – each doing whatever we can – and in a dark American moment King's example should sustain all of us against political despair. "I believe that what self-centered men have torn down," his life continues to insist, "men [and women] other-centered can build up." In this week commemorating King's life and work, that remains the great task before us.

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More Martin Luther King
Seen / Soon: Jan. 12
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Stepping into the richly crafted cartoon world of the Haas Brothers and honoring Dr. King on his day with a Poetry Open Mic

Jan. 12, 2018

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Martin Luther King, Martin Luther King Jr.

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