David Burns: The fierce urgency of MLK’s message in the age of Trump

(Jacquelyn Martin | AP) The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on MLK Day, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, in Washington, with the Washington monument, rear.

Of the 10 federal holidays, only two bear the names of Americans. George Washington, the indispensable Founding Father, is an obvious choice to honor with a holiday marking his birthday. But a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr., who never held any public office and died young, may be less obvious.

Calls for a federal holiday honoring MLK began only a few days after his assassination on April 4, 1968. This was followed by more than a decade of filibustering by the usual suspects, including Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. At one point, these unreconstructed segregationists tried to smear the memory of MLK — and through him, the entire civil rights movement — with a 300-page report on his alleged communist associations and dalliances.

In a dramatic rebuke on the floor of the Senate, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the report a “packet of filth,” threw it to the ground, and stomped on it, as if to say to Helms, “your racism is no longer tolerated in this chamber.” This was progress.

More time passed, supporters persisted, and the country continued its post-1960s racial reckoning. A bill creating MLK Day passed out of Congress by veto-proof margins. After initial opposition, President Ronald Reagan signed the bill on Nov. 2, 1983. The fight didn’t end there, however. MLK Day wasn’t observed in all U.S. states until 2000. Utah has the dubious distinction of being the last state to name a holiday after MLK.

MLK Day celebrates his life and legacy. He was the most prominent leader and spokesperson for the nonviolent black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. His activism began at age 26, in 1955, when he led the Birmingham bus boycott and spanned the remaining 13 years of his life. He was arrested 29 times for taking part in nonviolent protests that challenged the Jim Crow laws in southern states.

The movement culminated in landmark federal legislation that dismantled segregation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was harassed, punched, clubbed, stabbed, bombed and spied on by his own government. He and his family endured countless death threats, until an assassin’s bullet silenced him in Memphis.

The civil rights movement revived the Civil War’s promise of racial equality, forging the new birth of freedom that Abraham Lincoln spoke of a century before. The 1960s civil rights advances made possible the recognition of new civil rights for women, persons with disabilities, and LGBTQs. The movement made us all freer, and a more perfect union.

MLK gave America and the world some of the most soaring oratory about human dignity, ever. His delivery borrowed from the stirring rhythms and cadences of Southern preachers. But his underlying message was practical, intended to bring about real change in America’s race relations.

In his most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream,” he first challenged America to keep the covenants of its founding documents (“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’”). He then took flight, sharing his dream that “one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: `We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” That was his and the movement’s main ask of America: a fair shake. Racial equality.

Today, MLK’s most quoted passage is often invoked as a salve by those needing reassurance that their Trump nightmare will end: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Ironically, this is an MLK paraphrase of the writing of a 19th century abolitionist preacher who was trying to reassure his readers that their slavery nightmare would one day end.

But is MLK’s insistence that America honor its founding values of political equality and natural rights still relevant in this post post-modern, identity politics, moral relativism, transactional, and truthiness world? Yes. There is in fact a fierce urgency in the Trump era for MLK’s message that national values matter.

A country that separates at least 5,400 children from their immigrant parents and puts hundreds of them including babies and toddlers in long term detention cages has lost its moral compass and should look to MLK and other sources from the past for a course correction. Whenever an American generation makes equality its project, MLK’s message should speak to them.

There is a surfeit of MLK works to choose from. I like the message in the last Sunday sermon he gave before his death. Returning to a core moral argument that had long animated him, MLK posited in his sermon that we are, all of us, part of a brotherhood of man (and woman). (MLK would even refer to his oppressors as “white brothers.”)

“All men,” he said, “are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality ... Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

This is the nature of reality.

We’re all in this together. That’s an important message for a divided country.

David Burns

David Burns lives in Salt Lake City. He looks forward to a good night’s sleep once his Trump nightmare ends.