Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of peace. And as we approach his birthday in January, it is important that we remember that King's convictions grew of a committed pacifism -- especially since we are perched on the edge of another war in the Middle East.
I remember this time last year, with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks still very fresh in our memories, watching a procession of generals and political insiders parade across the television screen offering their thoughts and analysis on Afghanistan, the threats in the Philippines, the POW camps in Guantanamo Bay.
Because of the timing -- the King holiday approaching -- many were asked to comment on how they thought Dr. King would have responded to Sept. 11. The responses were remarkable for their lack of depth and their lack of understanding of Dr. King's work and message. Most of the respondents believed Dr. King would have supported a military response. He was a man of peace, they said, but also a man of justice.
This is horribly presumptuous, of course. I don't think any of us can presume to know how Dr. King might have responded to the terrorist attacks or the war in Afghanistan. The best we can do is to turn to his words:
"I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this is at the very center of Jesus' thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe," he said in "Loving Your Enemies," a sermon delivered in Montgomery, Ala., in 1957. "If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that's the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn't cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off, and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love."
Dr. King was committed to peace, justice and equality and willing to put his body on the line to change the world, to alter its face, to make it better -- without resorting to violence.
Violence, he believed, undercut the message of justice, of tolerance, of equality, diluted it, denigrated it.
"In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred," he said at the 1963 March on Washington. "We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of dignity and discipline."
He writes in "Nonviolence and Racial Justice," a magazine article published in Christian Century in 1957, that injustice must be met with love -- not love in the sense of affection or desire, but love as understanding and good will, as "the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice," as a "deep faith in the future."
So he marched and preached and put himself on the line, accepted arrest and continued fighting and praying and writing until that April evening in 1968 when an assassin's bullet took his life.
Dr. King was not the only one working for justice and equality -- and he may not even have been the primary force of change during that time of great upheaval. He was among the most visible, however, which made him a lightning rod for a host of resentments and rage -- both on the part of the movement and among angry whites who opposed change.
A lot of the grass-roots civil rights workers resented his fame, accused him of grandstanding and complained that his notoriety was disruptive to the difficult day-to-day work taking place in backwater communities throughout the South. (See the first two installments of Taylor Branch's King-bio/civil rights history, Parting the Waters and Pillars of Fire.)
But Dr. King's presence as the public face and voice was indispensable. It is his words we remember most, his articulation of the immorality of segregation and his commitment to change that continue to ring out, reminding us of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.
Much has changed since Dr. King made his speech in Washington at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Much has changed since he died.
There is a growing black middle class in the country and more blacks have ascended to leadership roles than probably could have been imagined when he made his speech 39 years ago.
But so much more needs to be done. Blacks and Latinos still face widespread unemployment and poverty, still live in decaying cities, still attend crumbling schools. They are less likely to have health coverage and access to quality medical care and more likely to be stopped by the police, arrested, jailed and sent to death.
As the nation once again contemplates military action, as it looks into an uncertain future of terrorism, it is important that we remember what Dr. King said in Memphis the night before he was shot: "Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation."
Hank Kalet is a poet and the managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.