The American Miracle
For the better part of American history, ours has been a nation conceived in liberty and unequal in its distribution. At its signing, our Constitution was the most progressive document extending freedoms to common men. But those inalienable rights were reserved only for white, landholding men. As a result, the arc of our nation has largely been the story of the bringing the reality of America in line with the ideal of America.
That broader story is inextricably linked to the stories of individuals who sought to bring reality much closer in line with the ideal. George Washington prevented our country from descending into chaos, showing that a democracy could survive its tumultuous first years and grow stronger. Abraham Lincoln proved that our Union could be run by majority rule and still seek to preserve the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. And Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped turned the American eye upon its own inhumanity, and in that stark moment of self-recognition, gave the nation the moral and intellectual blueprint for a free and just society.
Incredibly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. never held public office. He never possessed much material wealth. And yet, there was no American of greater consequence in the latter half of the 20th century than Dr. King. That he did this without title, without a famous last name, and with tenuous backing from mainstream America is without parallel in American history. It is, and remains today, the American miracle.
For Dr. King, little in his humble beginnings suggested he would achieve so much in such a relatively short life. A brilliant student who began attending Morehouse College at age 15, he majored in Sociology, and eventually earned his PhD in Theology from Boston University. From there, he rose to prominence as a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, even though he was originally from Georgia. That Dr. King largely came from “somewhere else” to lead people in foreign communities would be a theme throughout his career.
The modern-day image of Dr. King is that of a saint, but like most great Americans, he was very much fallible. He had affairs, which were documented by the FBI (who labeled King the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country”). He could be ruthless when it came to inner politics of church leadership and his own political organizations. He may have plagiarized on his dissertation.
But these qualities of Dr. King only make his role in the American story that much greater. There are no perfect men or women. And yet, we imperfect men and women can do things far greater than our faults would suggest.
There is a horrible mythology in America that progress is linear—that given enough time, our society will become wealthier, more equitable, and offer a higher quality of life. I often fall for this seduction myself. But progress is only accomplished through the concerted effort of human beings.
There was no reason why the Apartheid of Jim Crow had to last 100 years beyond the Civil War, when the Union had every right to forbid the sub-human treatment of African-Americans forever. Jim Crow was allowed to take root because Americans of all stripes allowed it to. It was not inevitable. For 100 years, our tolerance of the status quo denied any progress toward racial equality. That too is a thread in the American story—that mild indifference to genuine evil can do as much harm as the active passions of hatred.
In 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled the notion of “separate but equal” unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, organizers began to see a way to leverage public opinion into political progress. Dr. King and the Montgomery Improvement Association saw the case of Rosa Parks in 1955 and used it to institute a bus boycott. It was a simple movement with a simple ask—end aspects of segregated busing in Montgomery—and a federal lawsuit eventually handed a victory to Dr. King’s forces.
Dr. King was 26 years old at the time.
From there, the civil rights movement spread, and as it spread, it was met with increased violence. Jailed protestors were beaten and tortured in prison cells. Freedom riders who came to the South to help register black voters were attacked by mobs made up of white supremacists and ordinary citizens alike. In many ways, the lines between white supremacists and “ordinary people” were never clear. They enabled one other.
It was Dr. King’s work during the Birmingham protests in 1963 that earned him national acclaim. Nowhere was the civil rights movement met with such open, government-sanctioned violence as Birmingham. During this time, Dr. King wrote one of the most important documents of the 20th Century, “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” where he defended his organization’s presence in Birmingham. In defending protestors who came from out of state, he argued famously that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and that there could be no delay in having his group’s demands met. The city eventually caved in to most of Dr. King’s demands and agreed to desegregate Birmingham.
It’s important to remember that it was not simply the South where Dr. King’s message was met with violence. In 1966, Dr. King sought to end discriminatory housing practices in Chicago, and his marches were met with the same (if not greater) violence than in the South. The resistance to economic justice was every bit as threatening to the power structures of the North as in the South. As Dr. King was quick to point out, the abuses of power know no geographic boundaries.
In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. He was in Memphis to help organize African-American public employees who were being paid less and forbidden to work as many hours as whites.
He was 39.
Dr. King’s dream has progressed since his death. The quality of life and freedoms afforded to African-American men and women are the best they have been in American history. That we twice elevated an African-American to the office of the Presidency is both a celebration of that progress and a keen reminder of the unevenness of that progress. We can point to expanded economic opportunity or greater access to education or more representation in the halls of power, but those all come tinged with the knowledge that these are only a fraction of what Dr. King ultimately demanded.
For Dr. King, it was not simply about securing the vote for African-Americans or ending the more visible signs of segregation. It was about full acceptance into every aspect of American society. It was about earning as much as whites, having the same housing opportunities as whites–becoming equal partners in the American experiment. That we still have so many politicians who can channel an opposition of Dr. King’s agenda into a hatred of “government” or “welfare” or “liberals” speaks to how ingrained into our society the flaws of our forefathers still are.
I am not opposed to a smaller government or a smaller welfare state, but sometimes, these positions are simply a mask for denying political power to the kind of people Dr. King sought to elevate. We do great disservice to this nation to uphold the man that Dr. King was, but allow ourselves to fall prey to this new incarnation of racial indifference, where so many deny others from having the basic social and economic security that they themselves would never tolerate not having.
Still, the progress Dr. King and others brought upon this nation ought to give us great comfort. Dr. King’s story is uniquely celebrated for very good reason: his blueprint for racial equality was one that rejected violence and hatred, and it is one that we’ve seen replicated with success throughout the world. Throughout human history, the oppressed and downtrodden had their political rights acknowledged only after wars and widespread violence. Certainly, the 20th century up to that point suggested that African-Americans would only receive full political rights after militarizing and meeting violence with violence. But Dr. King (as did his role model, Mahatma Gandhi) showed that a revolution could be won by people with no guns, with little money, and with very little established political power. That this message has become so intertwined with the American story, and that Dr. King now stands with our nation’s founding fathers in the molding of this nation–it is one of the great triumphs in American history.
A few years ago, my wife and I visited the King Memorial shortly after it opened in Washington, DC. As we walked around, I found myself looking less at the memorial itself and more at where the memorial was positioned on the Mall.
The King Memorial stands across the Tidal Basin from the Jefferson Memorial. Over your shoulder is the World War II Memorial. High above it all stands the pointed top of the Washington Memorial. Through a patch of trees and over the Reflecting Pool are the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. King himself delivered the seminal speech of the civil rights movement.
After thinking all this, I could not help but laugh. Among these physical manifestations of our nation’s highest ideals and proudest accomplishments stands the stern bust of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And I thought to myself, “This is a miracle. A complete and utter miracle.”