February 13, 2012
A Lesson for Candidates
If political candidates want a quick lesson in how to speak to both the hopes and the hardships of America, often in a single sentence, they would do well to spend a little contemplative time at the new memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. on the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.
In his day, King could probably not have been elected to much of anything, even if he’d had such an aspiration. But his words of nearly half a century ago, engraved into the memorial’s semi-circle of dark granite, reverberate now in haunting harmony with the yearning of the country.
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” he said in 1967. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that,” he said in 1963. “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality,” he declared in his 1964 Nobel lecture, accepting the Peace Prize. “This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
This is fresh air in an election season polluted with propaganda, vacuous rhetoric, and encoded appeals to bias. We have heard enough of that kind of thing from Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum to require no repetition here. Even President Obama, the most eloquent writer to inhabit the White House since John F. Kennedy, cannot quite match King’s skill in weaving together the problem and the solution, the defining failure with the soaring promise.
For King, it was always an inclusive promise. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he said in 1963. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Then, in 1967: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
Very few leaders striving for an end to the bondage of hatred display such generous decency; Nelson Mandela also comes to mind. Fighters for equality rarely mobilize the majesty of language to speak to the perpetrators along with the victims. This uncommon appeal to the better part of the national soul is so out of tune with everyday political speech that the inscriptions stop you. They hold you. Only the children on an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon can run past them. Adults pause for pictures, gather their families of every race and age: black and white and Asian and mixtures so thorough they defy convenient categories.
Yet it is not a solemn place. It is a festival. Relaxed laughter, comfortable delight, fresh air. An interracial couple walks arm in arm. A circle of teenagers is led in discussion by a young man wearing a yarmulke.
Much controversy has engulfed the paraphrased and distorted quotation that appears on the northern side of the great white piece of granite from which a towering King emerges. On the southern side is carved his declaration: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Like Michelangelo’s unfinished “slaves” in Florence, the stone has not yet yielded, has not entirely released the human form into completion.
“I Was a Drum Major for Justice, Peace, and Righteousness,” reads the inscription on the other side of the stone. “The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” said the poet, Maya Angelou, in calling for a change, which the National Park Service plans to make. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.”
King’s actual statement, in a sermon at his Ebenezer Baptist Church, was this: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
All of the shallow things being spoken by those who would lead us do not matter. Let them visit the memorial on an unseasonably warm Saturday and take the time to read carefully.
“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.”