He is to young people today a man in moving pictures on a newsreel, or the young, stout fellow with the sonorous voice preaching himself into history with his "I Have a Dream" speech. Martin Luther King Jr., whom we celebrate today with a federal holiday, has been gone more than 40 years now, gone longer than he lived (he was 39 at his death). But for those millions of Americans who remember him within that time, and who remember well the injustices that brought King to prominence and ultimately to martyrdom, he is a very clear memory indeed.
There he was at the head of bus boycotts. Or being arrested in defiance of racial discrimination. There he was, preaching as few have ever preached, with power and impatience and passion and understanding, all rolled into profound sermons given everywhere from pulpits to monuments.
And there he was, finally, after all the struggling, standing on the balcony of a motel in Memphis, not knowing he was in the rifle scope of James Earl Ray, a then-insignificant loser with a racist mindset. After that April 4, 1968, he would belong, as Lincoln did, to the ages.
When it came to the struggle for racial equality, the rock of ages, as far as King was concerned, was nonviolence. He preached it when it would have been easy to advocate revolution. He preached it even as the fire hoses were bearing down. He preached it even as the clubs were falling. Nonviolence is the way, the only way, he said.
In hindsight, given the context of current times, that King stuck to that message is amazing. We lived in separate and unequal societies, marked by blatant discrimination, by violence against citizens just because of the color of their skin. How long, without the profound influence of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., would the country have avoided a massive revolt, worse even than the urban riots of the middle and late 1960s?
Today, we continue to see too many acts of violence and terrorism, such as the recent shootings in Arizona and earlier at Ft. Hood, Texas. We hear in political rhetoric violent images meant to be cute ("Don't retreat, reload"). If Dr. King were attempting to advance the cause of racial equality and peace among all people today, would he stand a chance of getting such a message across in these times?
It is a question that today of all days it would be appropriate, and perhaps constructive, to consider. That would be a fitting way to honor the man for whom this day is named.