To the editor:
When I think about Martin Luther King Day, I don't think primarily about Martin Luther King. Not that Dr. King does not deserve to be remembered and revered. He was a decent, wise, honorable and heroic man. He probably did more than any single person to bring about a nation where, as the brilliant but slave-owning Thomas Jefferson wrote, "All men (now understood to mean "people") are created equal."
People in other nations used to smirk when Americans boasted of our "free" country, knowing that millions were, in fact, legal property to be worked, bought, sold, beaten, raped and even murdered at the whims of their owners. After the most horrific war in our history, many of those same people and their descendants were "free," but nevertheless abandoned to "Jim Crow," a social, legal and economic position as near to slavery as can be imagined. Even as late as the 1950s, African-Americans in most of the South could not legally attend school, eat in restaurants, sleep in hotels or use drinking fountains or washrooms with whites. Most were prevented from voting or holding political office. Dr. King certainly led the struggle that convinced a majority of Americans that this state of affairs could no longer be tolerated.
But for all of M.L. King's faith, commitment, eloquence and courage in the cause of equal rights - and for all that, in the end, these efforts led him to a martyr's death - I do not think about him most on "his" holiday. Rather, I remember the faith, commitment, courage and, occasionally, eloquence of others. I think of the forgotten, and nearly forgotten, folks, black and white, but mostly black, who stood up with King. Many were abused, beaten, bitten by dogs and even killed as they staged sit-ins, freedom rides, marches and other nonviolent protests in lunch counters, bus stations, swimming pools and schools across the South. Many were attacked by mobs or their own police, sometimes in front of reporters and TV cameras. Sometimes - as with civil rights workers James Chaney (black), Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwermer (white) - they died lonely, terrible deaths at the hands of night riders. All were incredibly brave. None ever raised a hand in violence. And in the end, they won.
King and thousands of his followers shared their dream of equality at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The Civil Rights Bill they marched for, outlawing most forms of racial discrimination (and gender discrimination!), was passed the following year. The year after that, a Voting Rights Act was passed. Today, although far too few Americans of color have achieved social and economic equality, things have come a very long way. Today, especially since November of 2008, no one smirks at "all men are created equal" in America.
As a white American who never had to confront the evils of segregation or join those heroic, peaceful armies for equality, I am supremely grateful to Dr. King. But I'm even more grateful to his brave followers - black and white, known and unknown - who did so much to give me a truly free country.