Monday, January 18, 2010

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American original whose stature has only grown since his assassination in 1968. His I Have a Dream speech and Letter from Birmingham Jail are masterpieces of the rhetorical art, replete with religious themes, historical references, and poetic flourishes. Dr. King pushed, pulled, and forced a preoccupied postwar superpower to confront the difference between its glossy self-image and ugly racist reality.

He did this by conveying a vision of an America that was full of hope and was consistent with its founding ideals. He delivered that vision in soaring preacherly cadences that called, if not compelled, his audiences to act. On the holiday of his remembrance Dr. King's wisdom has not dulled with time's passage:

On non-violence:
In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.
On the difference between just and unjust laws:
An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal. By the same token, a just law is a code that a majority compels a minority to follow and that it is willing to follow itself. This is sameness made legal.
On civil disobedience:
In no sense do I advocate evading or defying the law, as would the rabid segregationist. That would lead to anarchy. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.
How to effect peaceful change:
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.
Dr. King asked his followers to “purify” themselves, that is, lead blameless lives in accordance with the very principles that they would demand others follow. Walking the talk remains as difficult as it is noble, and it is as relevant to leadership today as it was 47--and 2,000--years ago. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

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