On a warm spring day more than 20 years ago, I was walking the streets of New York City. As I neared the New York Public Library on the corner of 42nd St. and 5th Ave., I was approached by a young man carrying a clipboard. He was conducting a survey and wanted to ask me a few questions.
I was still naïve enough then to believe surveys were conducted for their own sake rather than for the purposes of selling a product or political position of some sort, so I agreed.
I thank God for the life and witness of Dr. King..
He asked who I thought was the greatest American who ever lived. I responded the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But didn't I know, the young man asked, that Dr. King was a Communist? Nonsense, I replied.
It was clear, however, that I had given the wrong answer, and he ended the survey.
I thank God for the life and witness of Dr. King. It is difficult to imagine the United States and, indeed, the whole world today, without his life and ministry. He led the way forward on civil rights, peace and nonviolence.
A destructive force
What is more difficult for me to consider is what might have been had he lived a full life and was in our midst today. He would be just 84 years old. Dr. Carlyle Marney once said: "All our griefs go back to this one thing: Something ended before we wanted it to."
Racism remains a destructive force in American society.
Racism remains a destructive force in American society. That would remain so even if Dr. King were alive. The existence of white privilege and the deep-seated, usually unspoken commitment to white supremacy are the great shame of our nation.
I am not sure how best to defeat racism. The fact is that white privilege is built into the structure of our society. The United States exists on land confiscated from its native peoples, and much of its wealth was built on the backs of slaves. Affirmative action to right these intrinsic wrongs is decried as favoritism for the victims. Amazing!
A life-and-death struggle
I feel certain Dr. King would have been a leading voice against the invasion of Iraq, federal budget cuts for human-needs programs, and efforts to restrict civil liberties and the rights of immigrants.
We have mythologized Dr. King, but he was engaged in a life-and-death struggle. While I love the 1963 Lincoln Memorial speech — which we will be celebrating in a few days with many observances in commemoration of the historic March on Washington — perhaps his greatest and most challenging address was the sermon he delivered at Riverside Church a year before his death. In that speech, Dr. King spoke clearly against the Vietnam War, linking the civil rights and peace movements.
Dr. King was not perfect, but he remains a hero of mine. In my office is a large framed poster of Dr. King and the text of his magnificent “I Have a Dream” speech delivered Aug. 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This poster hangs alongside another from the 20th anniversary march on Washington in 1983.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. truly changed the world. Many of his sermons and quotes resonate and remain timely today. Our task is to complete his ministry.