This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, and it is not yet understood or believed by some that his work and sacrifice were on behalf of all Americans.
By the end of his brief life, his mission had expanded to protesting war in Vietnam and to taking up the cause of poverty, which knows no color line.
He did it because he believed, deeply, that America was worth the trouble.
We are unique among the nations of the world in that we bought into the radical idea of self-governance from the start. No kings were beheaded. No emperors were overthrown. We unshackled ourselves from the British Empire and set out to determine our own destiny through a democratic republic.
Consider the audacity of this. It had not been attempted anywhere in the world since the Greeks. For centuries, common people were assumed to be incapable of making laws and creating frameworks for human rights. Such power was thought to be the purview of kings.
But we pulled off the impossible. As such, we alone are responsible for whatever state of government we happen to have at the moment.
If government is ineffectual, if it’s mired in cynicism, greed and failure, it isn’t only because the Russians bought Facebook ads. It’s because we’ve abdicated our citizenship, choosing instead to gorge on outrage and demagoguery.
No one else is responsible for maintaining vigilance of our freedoms, and make no mistake, if we leave it to others, it will be at our own peril. There are people among us who would like nothing better than for us to remain spectators, even as they chip away at our rights.
King taught us the push for freedom is constant. Though citizenship is ours by law and birthright, the leaders of the civil rights movement understood no one was going to hand black Americans their rights on a platter. The roots of resistance to their equality were as old as America itself.
No, the new freedom would have to be fought for, bled for and marched for, every day, along every mile on the way to Montgomery. In every step across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. At every lunch counter and polling booth.
King’s example teaches us that change can’t occur apart from that most-American of attributes: public dissent.
He taught us that if injustice is ever to get a fair hearing, then the truth must be made inconvenient for someone else.
He taught us that people in power aren’t always willing to do what’s right, but persistence leaves them with little choice.
America’s prophet, he taught us that citizenship requires action, risk and courage; that thoughts and prayers are not enough; not then, not now.
He showed us that truth is more powerful than money. He led an army of unarmed, politically powerless foot soldiers, and they slayed a Goliath, one whose hatred and hypocrisy defiled America’s declaration to the world that all men are created equal.
But Goliath keeps trying to come back from the dead.
Though King’s love for America was unrequited, he taught us time is the greatest arbiter, that what encounters resistance today will be seen as righteous tomorrow, and we must be willing to be criticized, even hated, for taking a stand for what’s right.
By his life, and in his death, Martin Luther King taught us, in the words of Lincoln, that “A government of the people, by the people and for the people,” is worth fighting for.