Monday, January 18, 2010

On listening to MLK

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality... I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

I sat down and listened to the "I have a dream" speech today - and realized that I had never actually heard it before! Sure, I've read the speech, and others of his perhaps a dozen times, but I never actually listened to it, all the way through, as spoken by the man himself.

It was surprisingly enlightening.

I spent most Martin Luther King holidays during my teenage year angry, not perhaps at MLK himself, but at the importance that people attached to him. It seemed completely justified at the time - he was a plagiarist, a hypocrite in a variety of other ways, etc. (and I was influenced by my moderately racist local culture). After I became a feminist, I added his occasionally poor attitude toward women to the list.

Eventually, of course, I realized that most of his supposed failings were either fabrications or exaggerations made by a rather nasty group of people (there's a nice write up here, if you're curious). But even more important, I think, was realizing who Martin Luther King Jr. actually was.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a great speaker. He wasn't a philosopher or a scientist who single-handedly discovered some great truth. And while he was an excellent leader, I don't think that's really why he's important. Martin Luther King Jr. real impact was that when he spoke, he wasn't just speaking for himself - he was speaking for an entire community. Even more, perhaps - he spoke for a whole group of people, black, white, women, men, who had one thing in common: they cared about equality.

MLK didn't just speak about race either, as some would have us think, he spoke about war, about poverty, even about technology. His genius was that he said what the people said; in listening, we can hear the people (including, perhaps, ourselves) speak.

And we would do well to listen.

(Crossposted at Constant Thoughts)