On Monday, we will celebrate the birthday of Georgia’s most famous son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The usual clips, photographs and cliches will be reverently trotted out over the public airwaves, but these limited media devices can render only the most superficial account of the man’s remarkably productive life. And they do nothing to reveal the extraordinary scope of King’s mind and talents.
It is not polite in a democratic society to point out one’s advantages; however, for our understanding, it is worth noting that King was the son, the grandson and the great grandson of churchmen. Good families can accumulate more than wealth and its privileges through the generations.
At its best, the family can serve as an institution of great force. Beyond instilling life’s essentials, the family can discover, form and refine the best talents of each member. When talents and desire are shared across generations, the results of this process of refinement can raise an individual to seemingly effortless levels of excellence.
King was just such an individual, steeped in the rich literature and beautiful language of the King James Bible, trained in formal speaking from an early age and instilled with a deep sense of Christian duty and moral force. These advantages, combined with a combative spirit and indomitable energy, hurtled King into a leading role in our country’s most difficult domestic conflict in a hundred years.
National unity was safe as long as King was alive. His arguments for nonviolent methods of conflict were penetrating, forceful and relentless. Largely thanks to his direction, a period of intense conflict was characterized by sit-ins, freedom rides, marches and boycotts instead of riots, murder, death squads and mayhem.
That is not to imply that King shied away from conflict; in fact, he often went looking for it, as he did in Selma and Birmingham. But he recognized violence as outmoded in an age of mechanized weaponry. Besides, King’s goal was always integration, not separation, and he understood that the psychological wounds of violence do not heal in one lifetime, but can scar a region for generations.
To understand how difficult it was to keep the movement nonviolent, one must remember the embedded power structure the movement confronted in the apparatus of the Southern states. When legal finagling had been exhausted, George Wallace used his state troopers in countless skirmishes in Alabama. While Mississippi set up an entire agency, The State Sovereignty Commission, to spy on the political organizers, produce racist propaganda, and do anything necessary preserve segregation. Going even further, Southern states condoned the actions of terrorist organizations, namely the Ku Klux Klan, by often allowing their attacks to go unpunished.
Inside the Civil Rights Movement King battled two contrary forces working against its progress: apathy and militancy. According to King, after generations of bondage, brutality and privation, many of his own people were content to simply get along.
On the other side were the increasingly impatient calls for militancy. He diligently fought the empty ideas of the Black Power leaders, calling them out as sloganeers without a program who threatened people with weapons and tactics they knew nothing about.
Despite all resistance, the results are clear. Though extremists and tensions will never disappear, today it is hard to argue that we have not already created the society King dreamed of. The movement King guided for more than 10 years lead to the complete enfranchisement of America and a more equal footing for all citizens, including women and immigrants.
His advocacy for Christian struggle through love and his genuine desire for the moral awakening and redemption of his white opponents have created the most peacefully integrated society on the planet. The good people of the South are reconciled and live in peace with their neighbors. Entire industries now relocate to the region, no longer tainted by apartheid. Southern politicians are no longer clownish embarrassments. In fact, the South has produced four presidents since desegregation rehabilitated its image.
Indeed, we have it so good in the South these days that we may do well to remind ourselves of King’s vision for the wider world. We now live in an interconnected global society of mankind and King wished to see us "transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood. Together we must learn to live as brothers or together we will be forced to perish as fools."
Such is the power of the darkness, of violence in our age. This is not to say that conflict must be avoided, for it is inevitable. Yet Christians and people of goodwill must seek means to struggle with evil that do not lead down a path of mutual destruction. Only then will we be able to say that we have risen to the moral challenge of our time.
Keeping our focus on that uplifting vision, we may still live to see the day when "justice will flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
Jesse Corn is a Gainesville native and a Forsyth County resident. His column appears every other Friday and on gainesvilletimes.com.