MLK and the Art of Living Freely

Martin Luther King Jr. taught us how to fight for our rights — by exercising them.

He lived freely.

To me, that’s the most remarkable thing, the most radical thing, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Yes, I’m impressed that he resisted racism and Jim Crow in America. Yes, I’m impressed that achieved his revolution through pacifist, anti-violence tactics. And yes, I’m still startled that this isn’t quite ancient history — that our current president was born when interracial marriage was still outlawed in some states, before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 transformed the landscape. Yes, too, I’m also startled that we in some ways take those achievements for granted, that we resist thinking about what the recentness of those achievements might mean for the way we live today, how we get angry and offended at the idea that the ghost of Jim Crow lives still.

(You want to know how recent all this was? George Wallace, the Alabama governor who in 1963 declared his loyalty to “segregation forever!” was still a Democrat in good enough standing to speak at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. That’s the same year Bill and Hillary Clinton campaigned for the party’s nominee, George McGovern. Hillary Clinton might yet be our president in a couple of years. The “past” still lives in the personal history of many of our leaders today. How far back can it be?)

Never mind that.

Again, the radical thing that Martin Luther King Jr. did was live freely.

In a time and place where he was not supposed to speak his complaints, he did so loudly, like any other citizen. Like any white citizen.

In a time and place where black people were supposed to sit in the back of the bus, King stood with and led those who sat in the front. Like any white citizen

In a time and place where black people were supposed to stay away from the lunch counter, King stood with those who sat down, and stayed, day after day, until they were served. Like any white citizen.

In a time and place where black people were supposed to stay away from the polls, King stood with and led those who registered to vote, and those who then went to vote.

We live in an society — perhaps an era — where there’s a lot of talk about “fighting” for our rights. That’s pretty much a good thing. But the most amazing thing that King and his cohort did, essentially, wasn’t so much to “fight” for the rights as to start “exercising” them, relentlessly, persistently, without fail, until society was forced to decide between one of two choices:

• Destroy them.

• Accommodate them.

It speaks well of the American character, and the structures put in place by the Founders, that accommodation eventually won out. But that can make us think rather too highly of ourselves, about the role we might’ve played had history called on us to make choices during that time. Most of us might’ve done what many Americans did at the time: Silently applaud King for his progress, even while living in fear that perhaps he’d unleashed uncontrollable forces into American life.

It takes more than guts to live freely like Martin Luther King Jr. Did. It takes a group of people, a critical mass large enough so that the effort to keep up the old ways of oppression becomes too costly to bear, and a willingness to bear, perhaps, extra costs in the short-term.

Living freely isn’t an easy thing to do, even for those of us supposedly born to it. So our eternal thanks go to Dr. King — he showed us how to resist evil. And he showed us how to live.

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