Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the US; the TV and other media were full of stories about King and his times, and what it all means today. He has been compared to Gandhi and Mandela, become an icon for American "progressives," and, of course, a historical symbol of the nonviolent civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. He won the Nobel Peace Prize, almost every major American city has a thoroughfare named for him, and, as noted, we have a national holiday in his honor--making him and Columbus the only ones to have such holidays. He was, of course, gunned down in 1968, at the age of thirty-nine; the civil rights movement he created passed to, frankly, less capable and less visionary successors, who undermined his legacy and his goal of a color-blind nation.
Before going on, let me give my answer to this question: Was he a great man? He showed great courage, commitment to his cause, insistence on nonviolence, strong political and leadership skills, patriotism, and became a highly eloquent spokesman for civil rights. "I Have a Dream" is one of the great speeches in the English language. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" likewise more than equals any Thoreau or Gandhi writings, and is not something that today's civil rights leaders, such as they are, could match, nor for that matter could the typical graduate of almost any university in the world today. (The letter's pacing, erudition, and the surgical preciseness with which it takes down opposing arguments remind me of that in General Sherman's letter to the Mayor of Atlanta.) King's life made a difference. He was a great man.
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