The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Written by Robert Justin Lipkin on January 19th, 2009

Racial apartheid has taken a terrible toll on African Americans by shutting them out of America’s promise.  But racism has exacted a terrible cost on all Americans. The symbol of this oppression can be best captured in the introduction to the film “Mississippi Btmpphp6mpgve.jpgurning.” The movie opens with the camera focusing on two water fountains, one marked “white,” the other marked “colored.” An adult white man approaches the white fountain and drinks and then walks off. A young African American male then approaches the colored fountain, drinks and also walks off. This metaphor has special currency in my own life. During my family’s first trip to Florida, we stopped for refreshments at a Dairy Queen in Georgia. My older sister, Julia, approached the water fountain marked “Colored,” and was about to drink when an angry white employee redirected her to the fountain marked “Whites.” My sister was thirteen, at the time, and no activist, so she refrained from drinking from the “Colored” fountain.  Nonetheless, she could not bring herself to drink from the “Whites” fountain and thus refrained from drinking at that Dairy Queen at all. An eight year old neighbor, accompanying us on our vacation, spied the “Colored” water fountain and shouted gleefully and in earnest, “Look colored water.” In retrospect, the starkness of Günnar Myrdal’s “two Americas” has no greater reality than through the conduct and words of children.

Why did this experience have such a poignant impact on me?  After all, I was just a little kid. The answer lies in the fact that I grew up in a household where racism was viewed as America’s original sin. Racism was wrong and America needed to redeem its promise by extirpating the practice once and for all.

Of course, in a few short years, the force of  Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to hold segregation up to the American social mirror forcing all of us to decide whether we could embrace the image that we saw. But Dr. King’s approach was not merely an exercise in civil obedience. Indeed, there exists a powerful philosophy behind his activism that needs to be articulated.

Dr. King’s non-violent civil disobedience required enormous courage and self-discipline. Dr. King recognized that individuals are not the measure of all things, but more importantly, he recognized the interconnectedness of everyone. We are community, of one sort of another, and the type of community we choose determines who we are individually. Consider:

[W]e have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood [and sisterhood]. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this.  We must all learn to live together as brothers [and sisters] or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.  And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

These words bespeak the idea of community, but more than that also. King goes on to state what I think is the best statement of his conception of community.

I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.

This states the thread that connects every American. It also states a dynamic process of making sure that both you and I are what we ought to be.  But most important, it seems to me, it captures the importance of deliberation and conversationalism.  We must deliberate with one another, engaging in a conversation that never ends, but continues to refine and perfect our Union. Dr. King recognized that the true spirit of the American experiment was a continued process of deliberating over what both you and I ought to be and the recognition that it is impossible for this moral “ought” to be just for whites, or just for Americans. This sense of continued community is contained in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and Dr. King helped to make this aspiration real.

Dr. King realized the difficulty of this moral project, which is among other things, the moral project of justice and freedom. He quotes the Prophet Amos as saying “Let Justice roll down like waters in a mighty stream.” King believed that “America ha[d] made progress toward freedom, but measured against the goal the road ahead is still long and hard.”

And then came Barack Hussein Obama. In May, the University of Pennsylvania’s Journal of Law & Social Change will publish an article of mine which casts President-elect Obama’s philosophy as committed to tmpphpn0yo3h1.jpgdeliberative conversationalism, a methods for engaging in political dispute resolution. His philosophy includes endless respect for others and civil conversation.  He requires us to take one another seriously and see ourselves in others. President-elect Obama sees the need for resurrecting America’s sense of community.  Rather than adhering to weaponized reason which often devolves into an insistence that I’m right and your wrong, President-elect Obama sees commonality in our differences. The possibility that the man and his philosophy can actually change our politics and help re-create our sense of community is not a given.  It requires supporting him not by rubber-stamping his policy decisions, but rather by a continued commitment to his deliberative conversationalism. In my view, the American attempt to rid ourselves of racism begins with the Declaration of Independence, and then marches on to the Civil War amendments, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, Brown, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and now the Presidency of Barack Obama. While racism unfortunately still exists in our nation. We are entering a new phase that I believe will prove to be the beginning of the end of this national malady.

I am incredulous and amazed that shortly America will begin to overcome its brutal racial past by swearing in the first African American to the presidency of this great nation. But we should celebrate President Obama not only because he is African American but more importantly because of the truly extraordinary person he is. In my mind’s eye I am overwhelmingly eager to see and hear him finish his oath with the words “ . .  . so help me God,” so that the Chief Justice can say, “Congratulations Mr. President.” This is truly the legacy of Dr. King.


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