From one point of view, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is simply one among many leaders of worthwhile causes. Perhaps many of these leaders were better speakers than Dr. King, while facing even stronger opposition. So why is Dr. King remembered with such reverence and respect if he is one among the many? True, he holds special importance as a historical figure and for his role in ending Jim Crow laws, but Dr. King was not alone in doing so. Where are the federal holidays for the other civil rights activists? What sets him apart?
The Monday before school started, the University of Dallas hosted Dr. Darryl Dickson-Carr from Southern Methodist University to speak on Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” President Keefe opened the event by calling to mind Dr. King’s legacy and its connection to the principles UD was founded upon. Dr. Dickson-Carr followed by unpacking this legacy, as set forth in the letter. What he saw was a man who refused to back down from his fight for justice, who articulated his position using rhetoric and reason, and who held himself and his followers to a stricter standard than did his political opponents.
In today’s America, the law no longer discriminates on the basis of race, and racial prejudices are frowned upon by society at large. If Dr. King is to hold any importance for the world today, he must be seen as the model he was. His is not solely a legacy of anti-racism or even nonviolent protest: the legacy of Dr. King is and always has been a call to morality, both in others and in oneself. Even as he fought against the massive injustices and violence in Jim Crow America, he never allowed that to be a justification for retaliation or counter-violence. He did not fight “against” white America as a black man; he fought for an America that lived as he did, especially in regards to relationships between people of different skin colors. This is a legacy that we can turn to and apply to our own lives.
Here at UD, racism and violence are uncommon. Living by the same standard to which we hold others is much harder. This manifests itself in how we deal with the small hypocrisies of our lives: complaining about the intolerance of non-Catholics without trying to actually understand them beyond their errors, shaking our heads as we watch a documentary about the poor, yet avoiding eye contact when we actually see a homeless person on the streets, even decrying environmentally irresponsible corporations, while refusing to make an effort to simply recycle. As trivial as it may seem in practice, this is what Dr. King was about: calling for change in others while never exempting himself.