It is true, as Concepción de León pointed out in the New York Times on the occasion of the Martin Luther King Day holiday, that “Martin Luther King, Jr., has become more symbol than man.”
King is one of the icons of the American nation. Along with Abraham Lincoln, Dr. King is the one we turn to for reassurance of the best and noblest American ideals.
So, it is a real sign of the times that in 2020 it has become acceptable again to attack Dr. King and his work.
Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at The Weekly Standard, complains in his new book, “The Age of Entitlement,” that civil rights laws have such an “iron grip” on American consciousness that “every single state must now honor” Dr. King and “must affirm its delight in doing so.”
The civil rights revolution, says Caldwell, made losers of white men: “They fell asleep thinking of themselves as the people who had built this country and woke up to find themselves occupying the bottom rung of an official hierarchy of races.”
Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says in a review of the book that Caldwell’s form of thinking is a zero sum game: one group wins and one group loses. Rauch calls this “one-eyed moral bookkeeping” that “leads nowhere.”
But Caldwell is not alone in this kind of us vs. them thinking. On the political left, as well as the right, we hear the rhetoric of “those people” and the expressed desire to defeat our enemies. It isn’t called the Resistance for nothing.
In this dark time of division, the teaching of Dr. King that we most need to remember and ponder—even more than his eloquent denunciations of racism, militarism and poverty—is his attitude toward the struggle itself. Dr. King did not think in terms of winners and losers.
He thought that America’s redemption would benefit everyone. If some people feel they are losers as the result of the accomplishments of his movement, Dr. King would say that love had failed to play a part in our politics.
We see Dr. King’s emphasis on redemption in the close of his “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963:
When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”
The whole point of that stirring close is that freedom for Blacks would mean freedom for Whites. The last thing King wanted was a new racial hierarchy.
Alvin Tillery, who directs the Center for the Study of Diversity and Democracy at Northwestern University, came to Duquesne University as part of the commemoration of the King holiday and spoke about what made Dr. King such an effective leader.
Using the text of Dr. King’s 1963 Letter from Birmingham Jail, Tillery showed that Dr. King practiced a leadership of common purpose, openness to the facts, equanimity, empathy and deliverable goals. Dr. Tillery called this creedal leadership.
King’s personal equanimity and empathy even for his opponents, is something that Dr. Tillery said, admiringly, Dr. King practiced with consistency throughout his entire life.
These attitudes can be summed up in the well-known saying, which Dr. King acknowledged appropriating from the 19th Century theologian Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
We participate in the movement of justice, but we do not control it. We are part of a larger sweep of history that King attributed to Christ, but those of us who are not Christians can simply recognize as the truth of things.
This movement of history is not picking new winners and losers. It is drawing all of us toward a new and better world.
We often wonder why our political life is so broken. Americans distrust each other. We get even our basic facts from antagonistic sources. We imagine our political opponents as quite different from us.
Constitutional democracy is not going to last with those kinds of divisions.
Until we see political life as Dr. King did, as a striving that wins for all or for no one, we will remain enemies.
Until we, like him, seek conversion of those we disagree with and not their defeat, we will not be able to speak to each other.
Until we, like him, offer a vision of a common good and not a plan for a new, but not really different, ordering of things, we will not make progress.
Simply put: we will not have healthy politics capable of sustaining democracy until we learn how to do politics from Dr. King.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.