Don’t expect to reach me today. For the first time in my career I work for a company that celebrates Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday. I am particularly happy about that, because I rank Dr. King behind only George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln as the greatest American Founding Father.
Neither Lincoln nor King were present at the beginning of our country so most people don’t consider them to be “Founding Fathers”, but because they both caused major course corrections in our nation’s direction that actually straightened our path and lead us to achieve freedom for all Americans, I count them that way.
The United States is among only a few nations whose citizenry are composed predominantly of people with non-native ancestry. Here, our ancestors are almost exclusively from somewhere else. We are a nation of immigrants. As a rejection of the principle of the divine right of kings, the original Founding Fathers of the United States intended there to be no class structure, as in “…all men are created equal“, and “…endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights…”. Washington and Jefferson were most responsible for starting our country with that concept, but it took Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War to establish that this really meant ALL people (or all “men” at least).
But even after the Civil War, not every class of U.S. citizen experienced the same level of freedom. The “unalienable rights” were not recognized for all men. Racial segregation was codified into many Local, State and Federal laws, as well as the by-laws and practices of many religious, social, educational and commercial institutions. It was baked into society as the way things worked. The non-violent U.S. Civil Rights movement was the catalyst for eliminating overt racial segregation from our laws and public institutions, thus achieving—for the first time, nearly 200 years after the country was formed—equal treatment of all people before the law.
There were many people who participated—even gave their lives—in the non-violent U.S. Civil Rights movement, but the movement was inspired and led by Martin Luther King Jr. who adopted the non-violent direct action approach originally used by Mohandas Gandhi and his followers.
Most Americans are familiar with at least a small part of King’s “I have a dream…” speech delivered on the National Mall in Washington DC in 1963 during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”. That famous speech was directed at his supporters so it includes encouragement and inspiration to continue the non-violent struggle. It must have been very rousing to hear it live.
But the words of Dr. King that I personally find most appealing are those he wrote in his Letter From Birmingham Jail in April 1963, which was aimed at a group of eight Alabama religious leaders who had previously written a public statement condemning the non-violent demonstrations that were “…led in part by outsiders” (see the full text of the brief public statement of the clergy here and King’s letter in response from the Birmingham jail here). This is riveting stuff—a quintessentially American debate.
The eight Alabama clergymen meant well, but their logic was flawed and it gave MLK the springboard he needed to lay out counter-logic that was crystal clear—the logic of a true Founding Father. What King created in his response is the summation of the argument for the entire movement. He draws a straight line from the Declaration of Independence to the Emancipation Proclamation to that present struggle. As far as I know, there was no rebuttal from the Alabama clergymen. These letters deserve to be read by everyone.
What followed were the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Dr. King awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in April, 1968, and Senator Robert Kennedy two months later (1968 was a turbulent year in the United States), and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
The result: Today, covert discrimination still exists, but there is no overt racial or ethnic segregation in any aspect of American public life, and our country is finally starting to benefit from its wide racial and ethnic diversity. Increasingly since 1968 we have seen new leaders emerge—in all facets of our culture—from the pool of talent that had previously been blocked from participating at all. That diversity will increasingly be our strength in the world. Most importantly, we are finally governing in recognition of the premise that our 236 year-old Declaration of Independence claimed was “self-evident”, that all men are created equal.
A BEACON TO OTHERS
Through technology, the world is taking note of our path to civil rights and the blessings and strength they have brought. Young people all over the world are starting to stir and demand civil rights. Last week, Newsweek Magazine published an essay by former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown MP, called “Youth In Revolt”, which describes his view of what is going on. While he doesn’t draw any parallels to Martin Luther King Jr. or the U.S Civil Rights Movement, he discusses how globalization has the potential to “radicalize a new generation.” Here’s a taste:
“In places where for centuries your rights have been only what your rulers decreed and your status and wealth what someone else ascribed to you, young people are asking questions. In countries where for centuries it was accepted that if your grandparents and parents were poor you must be too—and if you were born without the chance to flourish, so too must your children and your children’s children be—young people are saying this is not the way they see it. In continents where, if you were a girl, you were inevitably trapped in the circumstances of your birth, all your life’s choices dictated by centuries-old patriarchal assumptions, young people are starting to defy the ancient ruling orthodoxies and to assert that, irrespective of gender, race, or religion, every single person has basic rights, that power derives from the people, and that the duty of the state is to meet your needs, uphold your rights, and advance your opportunities.”
“[…] And as young people compare their experiences with others across the globe, they are discovering that the vast inequalities in their material circumstances are not so much to do with how intelligent they are, how much merit they have, or how little or hard they work, but where they were born and whom they were born to.”
“[…W]e are starting to see an assertion of the truth that what should matter is not where you come from but where you are going, and that, even if we cannot shape our original circumstances, we can at least shape our response to that fate. It is a demand for opportunity founded on a desire to be treated with dignity—regardless of where or to whom you are born. …”
Those sound a lot like the demands of the American Civil Rights Movement. And so far we have seen largely non-violent direct action applied successfully in most of the Arab Spring countries, Pakistan, India and elsewhere. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi are smiling in Heaven. Let’s hope that trend continues. Either way, I think we can expect some turbulent times ahead.
Happy MLK Day!