He had his day. Now let's drag him out of sainthood and back into controversy and relevance.
"This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation's self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers."
The public accolades ladled upon this fallen leader embalm him in sentimentality, in some glass case in the pantheon of national heroes, next to Washington, Lincoln, Elvis, et al. Then once a year we cherry-pick a memorable phrase here or there ("I have a dream" comes to mind for some reason), as though the words are frozen in history, part of a time when there was struggle and disagreement and prejudice.
The shocking thing about King is that his words are as alive and unsettling as they've ever been. Freed from the context of national myth, they can still elicit rocks and epithets and spittle from the mob. And they should. Their job is far from done. King's vision isn't simply a part of our past. His words give us a glimpse of our future.
The above quote is from "A Time To Break Silence," the speech he delivered at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967 - a year to the day before he was assassinated - in which he broke publicly with LBJ over the Vietnam war. These words stand as tough and challenging as they did 39 years ago:
"We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for (our troops) must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved."
Listen again and you may gasp at their relevance just as I did when my friend Joel Garb, a Madison, Wis., Vet for Peace, started reading this speech to me the other day. Nothing has changed, except that our weapons are deadlier and our cynicism is greater.
King's voice, that day in New York City, soared beyond the particular war then in full fury and horror, to the eternal futility of violence, the limits of nationalism and the roots of war itself. His words are eerily prophetic. They could have been delivered yesterday; he could have been talking about Iraq: "The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
"A true revolution of values," he continued, "will lay hands on the world order and say of war: 'This way of settling differences is not just.' This business of burning human beings with napalm" - today he would say white phosphorous, depleted uranium - "of filling our nation's homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.
"A nation," King declared, "that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."
King declared himself not only an American but a citizen of the world. He refused to dehumanize in his own heart America's official enemies; he refused not to listen to them or see their point of view. Then it was the National Liberation Front; today it's "the insurgency." He dared to demand of government the qualities of empathy and love, and a sense of responsibility for the whole planet, not just its own short-term interests.
As far as I'm concerned, today is Martin Luther King Day, and so is tomorrow.