It almost seems a miracle now: the lightning emergence and progression of an obscure black minister in the southern part of the United States, from preacher to the national voice of conscience and racial equality, and finally to a powerful advocacy of peace and human rights, which gained him respect and gratitude all over the world.
Martin Luther King Jr., whose 52nd birthday anniversary is being commemorated today, was one of the few moral leaders whose grandeur arose not from a position of public office or a fleeting triumph on a narrow issue. His greatness came out of an ability to inspire people and achieve purpose -- the purpose of progressive social change. He combined a consistent articulation of truth and justice for all people with an active commitment to a mass nonviolent movement against racism, povery and war. The mesage of his life and work endures, spanning the seas and calling out to each new generation.
Today, nearly 13 years after his assassination, it is awesome to view the depth and sweep of events that have emanated from the life of this man. the mass movement led by King reawakened black conciousness and pride, a development whose importance is impossible to overestimate. it also greatly encouraged the renewal of ethnic pride and scholarship in many other segments of the nation's populace. Moreover, this movement was pivotal in helping to spawn a succession of new organized causes -- the consumer movement, environment protection, women's rights and the anti-war movement.
The civil rights movement of the '50s and '60s, of course, produced a revolution in the South. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 came the dismantling of legal racial segregation; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 meant an end to the old political order of the region. These victories contributed to the South's continuing economic resurgence.
In addressing the problems of poverty through such efforts as the Poor People's Campaign of 1968, King took on a nationwide challenge, and the nonviolent movement compelled this country to think and begin to act on injustices in the economic structure.
When he opposed U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, on grounds that it not only was crippling our nation but also was immoral, King was forcing the United States to rethink its position in the world and helping other nations to reassess the efficacy of resolving problems by means of armed conflict.
One of the most remarkable benefits from the legacy of martin luther king jr. is that, while he gave so much to humanity during his lifetime, there remains much more to be gained -- if we will but listen to him once more.
We might begin by recalling the kind of agenda he was advocating for the nation at the time of his death. Essentially, he was calling for an economic overhaul that would guarantee jobs and income so that all American families could once and for all enjoy a measure of U.S. prosperity. The restructuring he espouses would also have moved our economy away from its orientation to war and destruction, making the United States a truly peaceable power and also giving us the economic security that eludes us today.
We know now -- and poor people know it in an especially painful way -- that the nation never really got serious about this agenda. The assassinations of King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 plunged many of those in the movement into despari and bitterness. Organized capaigns for social change became fragmented, and the political coalition for good will and progress was defeated by Richard Nixon. The war in Vietnam was intensived and lasted seven more years, and Watergate gave us a period of vast corruption and threats to our democratic values and governmental institutions.
There followed a measure of reconciliation during the presidency of Gerald Ford and some economic progress with Jimmy Carter in the White House. But the serious error during the past four years was the entrusting of the implementation of King's agenda to government. In the past, movement leadership assumed the responsibility of guiding the nation and government on these great questions.
The basic challenge of Martin Luther King Jr. in the area of the nation's responsibilities to its people has not been met. isn't it time now to renew the organizing and educating that will be required to move the country on a progressive economic course? Can't we reawaken what King called the "coalition of conscience," which served so well and successfully as a political and moral source?
In a private address to the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in late 1967, King said: "Must we resign ourselves to oppression? Of course not, for passively to cooperate with an unjust system makes the oppressed as evil as the oppressor. Our most fruitful course is to stand firm, move forward with agressive nonviolence, accept disappointment and cling to hope. Our determined refusal not to be stopped will eventually thrust open the door to fulfillment."
Martin Luther King Jr. gave us hope for a just and moral society. That hope can now be rekindled in a single stroke by conferring on him, and the values he stood for, a permanent honor: the enactment of legislation making his birthday an official national holiday. This honor would transcend his status a black leader of the civil rights movement. His ultimate leadership was not derivative of his color. It came from a moral vision that offers solutions to problems that face this entire nation and the world beyond our shores. He spoke for the liberation of whites as well as blacks. He cried out for the survival of humanity against the madness of nuclear holocaust and war. He taught that all people have an inherent worth and dignity that will always be the greatest strength of this planet. He told us never to give up the struggle for justice and freedom.
And Martin Luther King Jr. did this in the context of an unshakable faith in the most cherished values professed by this nation.