Growing up in a white, Southern home, I was not focused on the civil rights movement. I was not a racist, but I was a typically underinformed and apathetic high schooler with little appreciation for the auspicious events I was living through. At 17, in 1968, I did not fully feel the significance of his death.
One can’t, alas, relive those years – hear King speak, or meet him, or play some tiny part in the civil rights movement. But I envy those who got the chance. Over the years, as a journalist, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with a number of people who knew him and marched with him and I’ve spent time with one of his biographers. I’ve visited the churches where he preached and walked some of the paths where he and his followers marched.
The more I have learned about him, the more I’ve come to understand what he accomplished, the more I’ve come to value his vision, his profound skills as a writer and speaker and his great personal courage.
King had his faults. Like John F. Kennedy, another all-too-human icon from that era, King struggled with failings in his personal life, and he knew that his enemies would be all too pleased to see those things come to light. Toward the end of his life, King was often in despair. The movement he helped to create, built on nonviolence and racial inclusion, was fracturing. King may even have feared that all he had achieved could be in vain. But the brief arc of his life included so much that can inform and inspire us today.
King emerged, almost by chance, as the young leader of the Montgomery bus boycott in the mid-1950s. A young, little-known minister, he was chosen by his fellow pastors as a compromise candidate late one afternoon to lead the protest over Rosa Parks’ arrest because of her refusal to move to the back of a city bus.
That evening, with only a few minutes to prepare his remarks, King delivered the first of so many speeches and sermons that cut to the heart of the issue of segregation, reminding all of America that discrimination was at odds with everything we say we stand for.
We are not wrong, he told the crowd that night. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong. If we are wrong, Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer that never came down to Earth. If we are wrong, justice is a lie, love has no meaning. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and right- eousness like a mighty stream.
Much of the crowd of 5,000 who came to hear that talk in a Montgomery church sanctuary on Dec. 5, 1955, had to stand outside. In Parting the Waters, the first of a three-volume biography of King, Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch relates how the crowd responded as he spoke those lines, with the people in the sanctuary cheering his unexpected, almost otherworldly eloquence, then listening as waves of applause rolled in from beyond the loudspeakers outside. What a moment.
Branch, who spent 24 years on his three-volume biography of King, told me that as he dove ever more deeply into his subject’s life, he came to think of King not just as a hero of the civil rights movement, but as one of the truly great men of American history.
I believe that, too. Only Abraham Lincoln did more to close the gap between what our nation was and what it aspires to be.