What Martin Luther King saw from the mountain top


Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is being memorialized with a monument in Washington. (Ellsworth Davis)
August 23, 2011

Timed to the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, this week’s On Leadership roundtable explores King’s leadership legacy and where we stand today in fulfilling his vision for the nation—with opinion pieces by the Demoncratic National Committee’s Donna Brazile, Morehouse College President Robert M. Franklin, and Martin Davidson of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

With the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Dr. King ascends to the American pantheon. Dr. King’s memorial takes its place among the memorials to Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt, and alongside those hallowed spaces which commemorate the many lives America has lost in war. In so doing, it signifies—more, it gives permanence to—his achievements and his sacrifice.

Yet as important, perhaps more, this historic moment compels Americans to pause and to meditate on the fullness of Dr. King’s legacy: that of a man unafraid to lead, whose life was a fight in which “an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All Americans must work to be leaders like King—living memorials to his ideals—in our own lives and in our national mission. 

We so urgently need to remember King’s vision today. In the United States, the gap between the rich and the poor has reached record highs since the Great Depression. The median net worth of black households, $13,450, is one-tenth that of white households. But if the numbers are bad, the situation in Washington is even worse. We find ourselves in a political situation which shreds the poor to entitle the rich. We have a president who—though he represents a fulfillment of one part of Dr. King’s magnificent dream—has been forced to ransom the country’s economy, and its promise, from a radical fringe that has exiled America’s sense of common purpose. 

In the last year of his life, Dr. King mounted the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The campaign recognized that poverty and economic alienation, even more than race, was the unifying struggle of America’s huddled masses. King saw an increased need for “a new co-operation, understanding, and a determination by poor people of all colors and backgrounds to assert and win their right to a decent life and respect for their culture and dignity.” It was an issue that demanded leadership. King claimed it, unafraid, though he knew it would put him in direct conflict with America’s political elites. He died before the fight had really begun. 

It was a fight that only a leader like Dr. King could wage and win—a leader who could gain allies not by telling them what they wanted to hear or giving them something in return, but by speaking with a moral clarity that commanded assent. With millions of Americans unemployed, economic inequality on the rise, aid for the needy under threat, and the hopes of a bold economic recovery dimming, Americans are again in need of Dr. King’s style of uncompromising advocacy for America’s disenfranchised and economically vulnerable.

In life, King’s leadership was unifying; it transcended race. His willingness to go toe to toe with the likes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Bull Connor and George Wallace inspired anyone without political power, not just African Americans. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, King was not at home in the halls of power, always preferring unsullied leadership to political gamesmanship. He seized and kept the moral high ground, calling out Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on issues ranging from civil rights to the war in Vietnam.

The sense of righteousness in his soul burned clean and hot, and toward the end of his life it became clear to all what King had seen from the mountaintop: Justice knew no color, no class, no nationality. Before that vision could be realized, he was gunned down. Indeed, an injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.

Too often the passing of time makes our collective memory smaller and simpler. Memorials play a vital role in crystallizing a heroic figure, but they can sometimes fail to adequately project the scale and the scope of a legacy like King’s. We as Americans cannot, dare not, lose sight of those ideals and principles.

As millions of Americans gaze up at Dr. King’s furrowed granite brow in the coming months, I hope we as a nation pause to remember what exactly Dr. King saw from the mountaintop—a nation where the vulnerable, the innocent and the oppressed still struggled for basic justice. In his final sermon before his assassination, King spoke about how he wished to be remembered at his funeral. “If you want to say that I was a drum major,” King said, drawing amens from the crowd, “say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness.”

So he was. And if we truly wish to memorialize his mission, we too must be drum majors. Today.

Donna Brazile is the Democratic National Committee’s vice chair of voter registration and participation and a political contributor on CNN and ABC. She served as former Vice President Al Gore’s campaign manager, making her the first African American woman to manage a presidential campaign. She is also the author of Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics.

Read the full roundtable on Martin Luther King’s legacy

Donna Brazile: What Martin Luther King saw from the mountain top

Robert Franklin: MLK memorial is the reminder our country needs

Martin Davidson: Our perversion of King’s dream

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