The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
the legacy remembered,
the message that should not be forgotten
The homage that Americans pay today to the inspiring life and lasting legacy of Dr. King is a fitting tribute to this leader who spoke so eloquently of peace, of social justice, and of equal rights under the law and under the moral covenant that established and guides this great nation. But, as we survey the grim realities of today, across this country and around the world, that rightful homage also has the somber ring of a faint and distant eulogy for a man and a message from another time.
That other time that we remember and honor was then. But, more than ever, it is also now.
In his speech at Riverside Church in New York City, on April 4, 1967, Dr. King spoke of one war that was destroying the aspirations of the people of two nations – the people of the United States and the people of Vietnam.
The Vietnam War resulted in the deaths of 4 million Vietnamese civilians in a nation of about 40 million – 10% of the total population of Vietnam. Americans lost 58,202 soldiers in that war. And in hard, cold numbers, the Vietnam War cost the United States the equivalent of $662 billion in today’s dollars.
So far, today, this no-end-in-sight war against Iraq has resulted in the deaths of more than 1 million innocent Iraqis in a nation of 25 million. Four thousand of our best and bravest have died, and nearly 29,000 have been wounded. In hard, cold numbers, the Iraq War will cost the United States more than $2 trillion.
What would Dr. King say today? What would his message be to the President, to the U.S. Congress, and to the American people? It would be, I deeply believe, the same as it was more than 30 years ago: Iraq is a war that is destroying the aspirations of the people of two nations – the people of the United States and the people of Iraq.
And, it was only two years ago that the leadership of the Democratic Party, without invoking Dr. King but aligning itself with the powerful principles that he espoused, promised an end to the abuse of political power and an end to the war that was devastating the people of two nations. And Americans, believing that promise that we would “be free at last” from the policies that morally and economically enslaved this nation and unrepentantly took control of another, elected a new Democratic leadership in the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate.
Tragically, in the two years since, nothing has changed. The policies of this President persist and prevail. The Congress yields and subjugates itself time and time again. And the powerful, righteous, and universal message of Dr. King has been forgotten.
Dr. King’s concluding remarks in his Riverside Church speech called for an end to the disintegration of humanity brought about by war: “Somehow this madness must end,” he implored.
It is not in our power to bring Dr. King back, but it is within our power to resurrect his spirit in our daily lives and in the policies of the government that we elect to represent and lead us. He demonstrated throughout his entire life that social and economic justice are achieved not through compromising what we believe, but rather, committing to what we believe – whatever the odds.
In this crucial year for the future of our nation and the future of our world, today is the day to remember Dr. King’s words, embrace his spirit, and fortify ourselves with the message that he left for us.
It is time, once again, to ask what we can do to forge ahead – in our votes, in our support, and in everything we do — to reach that place where his words, his strength, and his optimism become more than a legacy. They become the policy and mission of this nation: “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I’m free at last.”