We tend to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as both a leader of a movement and a martyr to a greater cause. But I wonder if we would remember him much at all - whether, for instance, we would have this day of reflection - if it had not been for his mastery of language. His words, it seems to me, are stunning in their use during his own day: bold, intellectual, reasoned, and religious. Those words provided the soundtrack for the marches - and they have endured as a powerful echo alongside the black and white footage and yellowed news clippings.
Dr. King's use of language withstood both the stern tests of the day and those of the ages. Some of it was style and delivery. His measured tones and resonant, educated voice brought stark contrast to his more hateful opponents and rallied support among the white media. But even without that distinctive voice, the words are masterful - presidents of the modern era have speecch-writers and CEOs have ghostly composers; Dr. King wrote himself, sermons, essays, speeches. He did not write "low" for the masses, he wrote high for posterity. So this morning, I was reading Letter from Birmingham Jail on the Nobel site and I came across the following paragraph, and it blew me away: its meaning today is as powerful as it was then, not so much in terms of race relations now, but in terms of mild, political moderation and the price we pay for adopting the safe route. Read it and see if you agree [my emphasis on the last sentence]:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
UPDATE: Speaking of Dr. King's words resonating in the modern world, Andrea has a nice post on why the Drum Major Institute is so aptly named.
UPDATE II: Of course, there are those who say that conservatism in this country has no connection to racism, hasn't used it to gain political power. Here's just a quick taste of what's running on Free Republic [no link], the most popular mainstream conservative Web community in the nation, the main online bulwark of the Bush loyalists: "I wonder. Would I be called insensitive, politically incorrect or bigoted if I proposed a "Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Long-range Rifle Match?" Nice. The answer is yes.