Yes, he was flawed; yes, he distilled and recycled the thinking of many who came before him. He'd have admitted both of those things himself. But Martin Luther King, Jr. was and is a powerful symbol of our desire to be our best selves, and our moral imperative to recognize the value of every other person, whatever the color of our skins. I'm glad we have this holiday. It says a lot not only about who we are, as Americans, but who we want ourselves to be.
1. "[T]here comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right." From "Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution," a sermon at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968.
2. "[F]reedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." From "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," April 16, 1963.
3. "I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history. I refuse to accept the idea that the 'isness' of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal 'oughtness' that forever confronts him." From the Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1964.
4. "It is true that behavior cannot be legislated, and legislation cannot make you love me, but legislation can restrain you from lynching me, and I think that is kind of important." From a speech at Oberlin College, October 22, 1964. This sums up everything that matters about civil rights legislation, or about any law that protects a persecuted minority.
5. "Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis." From the last presidential address Dr. King delivered to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, August 16, 1967. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extraordinary political thinker, as well as a religious leader and a social visionary. This address contemplates a mixed economy that some might call socialist; I don't think he's talking about socialism, I think he's talking about a different kind of post-capitalist system. Dr. King's premature death cut off this conversation, and the fact that our politicians didn't have the time or forum to talk about these ideas led to some bad decisions and overreactions in the 1970s, when the United States faced unprecedented shortages and bottlenecks. It's impossible to know what Dr. King might have gone on to do or say or be, but this speech suggests the work that he might consider left undone, to this day.