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Tuesday, January 18, 2005


Thoughts on MLK day

Since my daughter's school choir was singing at the local MLK Day festivities yesterday, I found myself there at the beginning of the program and stayed long after her group had done their part. There was quite a bit of talent on display, along with the usual embarrassingly bad local "acts" and also a few interesting remembrances of the honoree. Of course, some of those "remembering" were born post 1968, so they "remember" Dr. King through news film footage and history books. Some seemed to grasp the enormity of his accomplishments, but as they say, you really had to be there. One speaker, a senior from Cornell who has served as an Alderman in his town despite his youth and seems to be determined to be an East Coast version of Senator Obama, made some very interesting observations from that perspective, before deteriorating into a parroting of the liberal positions on social security, taxes, the Iraq war, etc. One would like to believe that Cornell develops more sophisticated thinkers, but though I live in hope, I should know better by now.

One of the local ministers took on the unenviable task of reading the "I have a Dream" speech King gave at the Lincoln Memorial. To his credit, he made no effort to imitate King's delivery, but did it in his own style, somewhat underplayed, and surprisingly effective. I think King's oratorical mastery sometimes served to overshadow the content of his talks. By the time he delivered "I have a Dream," the speech had been polished to perfection, like a comedian's monologue performed hundreds or thousands of times before you see it. When an artist is so well prepared and confident in his material, that is when (s)he can seem the most spontaneous and relaxed, even though all of what you see is tightly rehearsed and performed verbatim. News footage of earlier King speeches show him experimenting and testing variations on the major themes in prior speeches, until they were just perfect.

That speech is tied together so brilliantly - from the "promissory note" to the "dream" - to "let freedom ring" and finally "free at last." As with many of his speeches, the themes are not original - he quotes poems, songs, etc. - the brilliance is in how they were woven together to make his point and most importantly, to move his listeners. When I see the film from the March on Washington speech, I still get chills, and it's 40 years old.

Though Dr. King gave the second greatest speech in American history, and probably had several others in the top ten, he was not a saint. His personal life was fodder for FBI rumor mongering and he apparently earned his reputation as something of a swordsman. He opposed the Vietnam war, certainly a position shared by many of us at the time, but a position that has not emerged unscathed by historical perspective, I regret to say. To a great degree, he lost control of his younger followers in the mid-sixties, many of whom gravitated to more radical and violent leaders. Whites preferred dealing with him because he was dedicated to non-violence, but that only served to disaffect younger, less patient Blacks. In fact, his star in the Black community was just regaining its prominence when he was cut down.

It's hard for me to understand that there are still many in the country who would prefer not to celebrate this day as a holiday. I know many people who make it a point to carry on business as usual. I guess that is their right - this is a free country. However, there is also little doubt that MLK day has grown more firmly established as a national holiday, as it should be. Dr. King's reputation and position of prominence, unlike the Kennnedy's, Malcolm X and other of his contemporaries, seems to be growing with the passage of time. I consider this the natural result of the importance of his accomplishments, their continuing relevance for so many of us even today, and his devotion to America and his determination that it mature as a nation.

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