LOOKING EAST from Dupont Circle, an apartment dweller could peer out at dusk each night and see a red-orange glow that filled the horizon. This was early in the spring of 1968, and it seemed as if the nation's capital was burning. It wasn't — only parts of it, in neighborhoods to the east of the city's invisible dividing line somewhere around 14th Street NW. Shops were being looted and set afire, a curfew was in effect, and a dozen people were killed, mostly by smoke and fire. The wave of arson and looting was the response, in our city and elsewhere, to the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. It was a spasm of anger and despair at the loss of a seemingly irreplaceable leader, and it would have made King weep.
For one of the greatest of his contributions to the nation was his elevation of the national dialogue on the subject that has haunted the country almost since its earliest days as a scattered bunch of settlements on these shores: the enslavement and exploitation of the weak by the strong. In his exhortations to his fellow Americans, he spoke in a voice that is not often heard in our capital today. There was no Twitter then, and even if there had been, it would have been difficult to reduce to 140 or 280 characters the thoughts of a man given to quoting Jesus, Matthew , Paul and poets such as James Russell Lowell and Ovid, as well as a host of other thinkers.
Nevertheless, here are some tweetable quotations from King especially apt for transmission by Americans seeking to counter the debased and often juvenile abuse being spewed from high places in Washington 50 years after the death of the man we honor today:
"We must meet hate with love. We must meet physical force with soul force. There is still a voice crying out through the vista of time, saying: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.' "
"God is not interested merely in freeing black men and brown men and yellow men, but God is interested in freeing the whole human race."
"We must act in such a way as to make possible a coming together of white people and colored people on the basis of a real harmony of interest and understanding. We must seek an integration based on mutual respect."
"When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love. "
"I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant."
That last one is on the South Wall of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, part of a tribute to a national leader who sought to appeal to the best that is in us. Engraved in stone, maintained by the National Park Service, it is a message of hope that will long outlive the discord and disrespect of these days.