MLK’s legacy of faith, freedom, equality

Published 9:09 am Friday, January 13, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

I was very young, not even in school yet, but I remember watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak to crowds of Americans (the crowds were black and white, but I don’t know if that was because they really were multi-ethnic audiences, or because we had a black-and-white TV set).

As a Missouri Synod Lutheran, I thought it was beyond cool that an American who was on TV and written about in the newspaper was named for the man who founded the church I attended.

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I remember more clearly the week after Dr. King was assassinated, when riots consumed inner cities across the country.

Because my father worked at the Pentagon, we were living in Arlington, Va., just outside Washington. We were far enough away to be safe, but near enough for my parents to be worried, mainly about friends who lived in neighborhoods closer to the mayhem. All day and night the TV replayed speeches from the past decade and interviews, interspersed with live reports of burning and looting.

Even though they were both Republicans, supporters of President Eisenhower and President Nixon (this was long before Watergate), I clearly remember that grief and mourning were the lessons of those days of destruction.

My parents were genuinely upset about King’s assassination. While they were prejudiced — no white American growing up in the ’40s and ’50s (or even ’60s, ’70s and ’80s) is free of prejudice — they were fierce opponents of segregation. Their minds were changed after living on a naval base in Georgia and experiencing the brutality and injustice of white rule firsthand in the communities outside the base’s perimeter.

After his death, Dr. King became one of my heroes. That it took his death for this to happen is not something I am proud of, but it was his life that strengthened my appreciation and admiration for him as I grew up.

I read his sermons “Strength to Love” (1963) and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), his response to white Christian pastors who were critical of his campaign of nonviolent resistance. He is still one of the most important Americans of any generation, as far as I am concerned.

So I was ashamed to be an Arizonan when the governor (and his allies) kept blocking attempts to recognize his birthday as a holiday (unfortunately, I’ve had other reasons to be ashamed of the “crazy” people of Arizona more recently). When I moved to the Midwest back in 1985, I was shocked to come across billboards in two different states that still proclaimed the message that King was a Communist and anti-American.

I wish his birthday weren’t just another excuse for a three-day weekend for many Americans — it’s a waste of his memory, I think — but at least it’s on the calendar. There are activities that are more worthy of the day.

Waldorf College marks the day with a convocation assembly, and there’s a speaker at Riverland Community College’s Austin campus on Monday evening, too. A few years ago, Waldorf held a meal-packaging event for Kids Against Hunger.

Dr. King embodied the slogan “faith and freedom” because it was his faith in both God and the Constitution that gave him the strength and the authority to speak about the lack of freedom in America. God gave him the strength to stand up after being knocked down so many times, but the Constitution was the source of the “radical” nature of his politics. He helped a lot of white Americans recognize, and then confront, the totalitarian oppression that enforcing segregation required.

Although we have not yet completed the journey to true equality and freedom in America, we do make progress with each generation. That’s something I also heard Dr. Lynne Cheney say (you know, the wife of the former vice president). The president and first lady have African ancestors, as do many conservatives who oppose him. More kids growing up today are far less prejudiced against other Americans on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, faith or sexuality than any previous generation.

I repeat: Freedom is still a work in progress — just look around the community we live in — but it’s good to look around just before our annual commemoration of Dr. King’s birthday and see how far we have come.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.