Abraham Lincoln is generally regarded today as one of America’s greatest presidents. But, that wasn’t always the case. It took more than half-a-century after his death before the memorial erected in his honor could be built. The bitterness of the Civil War he waged to preserve the Union lingered long after an assassin’s bullet ended Lincoln’s life.
It took time to bring the perspective needed for Lincoln’s greatness to shine. We are now experiencing the same process in the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
The legacies of Lincoln and King were publicly intertwined when King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the Lincoln Memorial. That speech ranks alongside Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as among the best expressions of America’s highest ideals.
In 1963, however, both the speech and the speaker were as controversial as Lincoln had been in his time. Throughout the 1960s, King was routinely found to be one of the most unpopular men in public life, hounded by the FBI, and repeatedly arrested for demanding that America live up to its highest ideals The bitter response to the Civil Rights movement he led lingered long after an assassin’s bullet ended his life.
This past Monday, we officially celebrated King’s life and he is now viewed favorably by most Americans. But King still does not get the respect he deserves. As a Baptist preacher, King grieved over the fact that the most segregated hour in America was Sunday morning at church. It is painfully ironic that the holiday honoring King’s life has become one of the most segregated days in America.
Appreciation of King is limited partly because he is viewed primarily as a great black leader rather than as a great American leader. It’s also limited because many Americans know little about the great man beyond his soaring rhetoric.
King was a smart, tough, and courageous leader who tirelessly promoted non-violent protests to counter the violence inflicted upon black Americans. It was a brilliant strategy designed to appeal to the hearts and minds of white Americans by presenting a clear choice between right and wrong.
But it was tough to sell the idea to many black Americans who were sick and tired of being abused. Recognizing this, King did more than just give nice speeches and hope for the best. He constantly led mass meetings to remind everyone that non-violence was the only practical path forward. He and his team also prepared protesters for what they would face by clearly expressing the dangers and providing ongoing training exercises.
Ongoing daily leadership was needed. Following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King recognized the potential for violence when black riders prepared to ride integrated busses for the first time. So, he wrote a 17-point memo advising the riders on appropriate behavior. One of those points remains both heartbreaking and powerful: “Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.”
Leadership like that made Martin Luther King, Jr. one of America’s greatest leaders. Like Lincoln, he understood that challenging the nation to live up to its highest ideals put his own life at risk. But King sacrificed himself to make our nation a better place. He created a better world not just for black Americans, but for all Americans.