Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy is even greater than we remember…

My Opinion piece, below, ran in the New Hampshire Sunday News, New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, on January 19, 2020. This paper has a long history of conservative editorials — there was a time when they would not have published this piece. Today they do an impressive job of covering local news with accuracy and fairness, and they are unafraid to bring widely varying views to their op-ed and guest articles. We need more of this — real journalism, even in this challenging time for news outlets, especially newspapers, and a willingness to bring ideas to the people beyond a narrow party line.

I worked at the paper in the 1980s, and I am proud that they accepted this piece today. Onward!

AS OUR COUNTRY celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., networks and newspapers will return repeatedly to what is called his “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on a hot August day in 1963 at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The speech deserves its iconic stature. In less than 17 minutes it is a poignant history lesson and a reaffirmation of the call for brotherhood and justice at the heart of our faith traditions. The speech demands that we be better people tomorrow than we were yesterday. It promises that hope will prove more powerful than hate.

And yet, as important and inspiring as his powerful sermons and writings, as crucial as the nonviolent marches he led that brought the civil rights movement to America’s living rooms, King accomplished historic work that is not often discussed today.

Throughout the 1960s King lobbied, disagreed and strategized with President Lyndon Johnson, a man with whom he shared a mutual distrust. Regardless of one’s political leanings, it is impossible to imagine such cooperation and commitment taking place in today’s atmosphere of political inertia and continual venom.

On the telephone and in the White House, the two inched closer to the civil rights legislation needed for America to make good on its fundamental promise of equality for all — in the voting booth, the workplace and in daily life.

Without King’s faith and activism, and Johnson’s ability to horse-trade, arm-twist and wrest legislative victories, we would not have the civil rights that, while imperfect, make this democratic experiment so worth preserving and strengthening.

The two men were worlds apart: King, well-educated scion of a prominent Atlanta African-American church family; Johnson, from the bleak Texas hill country. A politician fueled by the poverty of his childhood; a minister driven by the Scriptures and rebellion against America’s history of racism.

Yet they had common ground, too. Journalist Nick Kotz, in his fascinating book, “Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Laws that Changed America,” chronicles the relationship of the ambitious, complex and flawed men, both possessing the sizeable egos that often seem to sustain tireless activists. Kotz writes that they both lived with deep-rooted fears, Johnson of humiliation and failure; King of just the kind of hateful attack that would end his life a few short years later.

They had good reasons not to trust one another. The FBI spied on King, who rightly suspected Johnson knew about the wiretaps. King’s ability to galvanize protesters was a political threat to Johnson. Yet despite the uneasy alliance, both knew that they needed the other to succeed at their greater calling.

Each man kept his eyes firmly on the end game, which led to passage of the Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and ’68, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. King’s activism had called the race question in a way that could not be ignored, and Johnson’s skill at giving political favors with one hand in order to take what he wanted with the other was never more valuable.

As we honor King for his dream of a better America, it is also a time to be thankful for his difficult and less visible ministry, and a President who stayed in the room and listened to him.

We must ask ourselves what we could accomplish today with political leadership working in partnership with articulate advocates from spiritual, economic, military and science backgrounds.

What might we gain in the way of humane immigration policy, effective climate-change action, affordable health care? As we approach another historic first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, who are the people who can put the goal of a free and equal nation above all else?

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,” King told America in his most-recalled speech. Making real those promises is the work of brave leaders secure enough to listen even when they disagree — especially when they disagree — and to put their own fears aside to work for the greater good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.