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Martin Luther King Jr. Day is celebrated every year in the United States to commemorate the life and achievements of a man who managed to do so much in a life that was cut tragically short. He was a follower of Gandhi’s nonviolent approach and the use of civil disobedience as a powerful tool for change. Violence, to him, was never an answer to even the most dire problems. Indeed his steadfast devotion to peace earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, something that he accepted graciously, but never let define him. He was still the reverend from Georgia who sought to uplift those who were downtrodden.
We live in a time where violence has become the norm, where nonviolence–though idealized and uplifted in theory–is not seriously employed as a reasonable solution. We are engaged in two unpopular wars without a discernible end, and are mired in troubles that are progressively eating away at our resolve. Probably now, more than ever, we need the Rev. King to lead us from darkness to light. We may not have the man, but we have his legacy, his ideas, and his dream.
When obstacles rose in his path for racial equality for everyone, King found ways around them, and managed to achieve what he set out to do. When violent, fringe movements rose out of the civil rights movement, King distanced himself from them, sticking to his nonviolent path. When the Vietnam War broke out, King withheld support when to do so was considered unpatriotic. Indeed he wasn’t afraid to push through the opposition to stand up for what he believed in, and ultimately to stand up for what was right.
His dream finds applications even in today’s tough times. Today, Iraq and Afghanistan are still reeling from the violence of protests, of suicide bombers, and of war in general. Today, our social programs are languishing. Rev. King would have never supported our actions now, how we’ve put all our eggs into the proverbial military basket. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” he once said. If that is the case, we are undoubtedly standing at death’s door.
As a new president prepares to take the reins of a nation in shambles, I wonder what our next course of action will be. “[Man] is distinguished from animals by his freedom to do evil or to do good and to walk the high road of beauty or tread the low road of ugly degeneracy.” In the face of unspeakable violence–some exacted by us–as well as a lagging economy, we could meet it with violence and greed, i.e. more of the same. Or we could take a leaf out of Dr. King’s book and try to meet the challenges of the new administration with intelligence, with magnanimity, and with compassion.
We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.
Dr. King’s dream must find new purpose in a world that, while somewhat improved from the one Dr. King experienced, still has many problems to overcome.