Posts Tagged ‘Martin Luther King Jr.’

Martin Luther King’s gospel of freedom

October 31, 2017

Today the Rev, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a revered figure who is criticized by virtually no-one. We forget how radical, controversial and even hated he was during his lifetime.

Liberal white people in the North approved of his non-violent struggle in the South, because they regarded the South as like a foreign country, like South Africa.

It was a different matter when he started campaigning in segregated neighborhoods in Chicago, when he applied his message of peace and nonviolence to the Vietnam War, or when he started to question the justice of the whole American economic system.

He lived with constant fear of being killed, many of his comrades were killed and he himself was killed in the end—in a conspiracy which has never been fully investigated.

Yet he and his followers brought about fundamental changes that had been thought to be impossible.

Few if any social or political movements have accomplished so much good with so little harm.

Dr. King’s philosophy was outlined in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote while in prison in April, 1963, It was aimed at two sets of readers:
• Moderates, most, but not all of them, white, who thought he was pushing too hard and too fast, and wanted him to go slower.
• Militants, most, but not all of them, black, who thought his belief in love and nonviolence was weak, and wanted him to strike harder

My friend Richmond Dyes did a presentation on “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for the Rochester Russell Forum on Oct. 12, which prompted me to read Jonathan Rieder’s GOSPEL OF FREEDOM: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle that Changed a Nation (2013), a report on the background and context of the Letter and an analysis of its text.

It was written in response to eight prominent white Alabama clergymen, including six Protestants, a Catholic and a Jew, who had written a public letter entitled “A Call for Unity”.

They condemned Dr. King’s protests and lawbreaking, and called on “both our white and Negro citizens to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

The eight had been part of a group of 11 clergyman who seven months before signed “An Appeal for Law and Order and Common Sense,” that urged obedience to court decisions that ordered desegregation. For this they had received death threats, and no doubt thought of themselves as the good guys in this struggle.

Dr. King attacked the false equivalence of black people struggling nonviolently for justice and equality, and white racists engaging in murder and terrorism to perpetuate oppression.

Members of the Birmingham Ku Klux Klan, on a whim, castrated a random black pedestrian, Edward Aarons, and then told him to send a message to the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, leader of the civil rights movement in Birmingham, that the same was in short for him.


Still judged by the color of their skins

January 16, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech said he hoped that his children would be judged by the content of their characters and not the colors of their skins.

martin.luther.king.jrMore than 53 years later, this is still a dream.

As Michelle Alexander has written, mass incarceration of black Americans, many of them for drug offenses and other victim-less crimes, has provided an excuse to disenfranchise black voters in some states and deprive them of protection of civil rights laws everywhere.

As Greg Palast has documented, Republican state governments systematically cancel black and Hispanic voter registrations for bogus reasons.   And as Black Lives Matter points out, black people are sometimes killed by police or gun-toting whites without justification, with no consequences to the shooter.

And, as I have written before, old-fashioned racial discrimination in jobs and housing, which supposedly was outlawed under the civil rights laws, still exists today.  That is the main subject of this post.

Testers find that sellers, lenders and employers will favor the less qualified white person over the more qualified black person.

With all the talk nowadays of government favoritism toward African-Americans, I don’t think there is any rational white American who would want to trade places with them

Statistical disparities between races may have some non-racist explanation.  But the examples I’m going to mention, and which I listed in a previous post, are set up so as to rule out any non-racist explanation for the biases.

  • A group of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania sent out 6,500 letters to professors at the top 250 universities in the USA.  The letters were identical except for the names of signers – Brad Anderson, LaToya Brown, Depak Patel, etc.  The white men got on average a 25 percent better response than white women or blacks, Hispanics or Asians, and that was true even when the professor was female, black, Hispanic or Asian.  Professors at private universities were more biased than those at public universities, the study found; the humanities professors showed the least bias; the business professors the most.
  • A sociologist at Northwestern University sent out four groups of testers in Milwaukee—whites and blacks, some of which listed criminal records on their job applications and some that didn’t, but otherwise were made to be as identical as possible.  The whites with criminal records had a higher chance of success than blacks with clean records.
  • racism-in-a-resume-92ebdafd521c4b23b83023db292f4f40Researchers for Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab sent out nearly 5,000 applications in response to more than 1,300 help-wanted ads.  They were divided into high- and low-quality applications, each with an equal number white- and black-sounding names.   The well-qualified whites got good responses, but the well-qualified blacks got 50 percent fewer.
  • Researchers at Harvard Business School found that white hosts were able to charge 12 percent more on average that black hosts for Airbnb rentals for virtually identical properties at similar locations.
  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development sent out 8,000 pairs of testers, one white and one black, Hispanic or Asian, to look for places to rent or buy in 28 cities.   More than half the time, they were treated the same, which is good.   But in many cases, the minority potential renter or buyer was asked to pay more, shown fewer units and/or charged higher fees than the white renter who had come by a few hours before.
  • The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston sent out pairs of testers to buy houses in eastern Massachusetts.  They, too, found that black and Hispanic buyers were on average charged more and offered less than white buyers.


Donald Trump and the limits of protest

March 23, 2016

I admired Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he was alive.   I admire the thinking of Gene Sharp.  I think civil disobedience is justified when all else fails.

But I do not agree with the non-violent protests that shut down an Arizona highway near a Donald Trump campaign events, nor with other protests intended to prevent Trump from speaking.

Dr. King’s non-violent protests were strategic attacks on structures of power.  His protests succeeded to the extent that people in power concluded it would cost them less, in terms of damage to profits and reputation, to give in to his demands than to fight them.

They also succeeded to the extent that Dr. King was able to convince the larger American public that his cause was just, and his protests were disciplined and organized as to give his followers the moral high ground.

Dr. King had specific lists of demands.  His opponents always knew what they had to do in order to shut off the protests.

trumpblock20Protestors who try to shut down Donald Trump rallies do not hurt either Trump’s reputation nor his profits.  Instead they solidify Trump’s support, while inconveniencing and alienating the general public.

Those protestors are not defending their Constitutional rights.  Instead they are denying Trump his right of free speech and his followers their right to peaceably assemble.

Yes, I know the Constitutional rights of Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and other groups have not been respected, and that Donald Trump himself is not a friend of civil liberties.  That does not mean that he and his followers are not entitled to hold meetings or that there is anything to be gained in trying to deny them that right.


What is an unjust law?

February 22, 2016

An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.

Source: Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous radical

January 18, 2016

In his lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr. was a hated and feared radical, with reason.  Many of those who honor him today today were, or would have been, violently against him had he lived.

J. Edgar Hoover regarded him as a dangerous Communist, much as Hoover’s successors regard the #BlackLivesMatter movement today.

117tzz-aust-79He is remembered today by many as a nice man who thought that people should be judged as individuals and not by race, and that black people should not engage in violent protest.  He is honored by the kind of people whom he fought in his lifetime.

What’s forgotten is his call for radical social and political change, his advocacy of labor rights and his unconditional opposition to war.

king.racial.progressHe advocated economic justice as well as civil rights. and spoke almost as often in union halls as in churches.  His “I Have a Dream” speech was given at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs (my emphasis) and Freedom.  Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, Tenn., while on a mission to support striking garbage collectors.

He turned against President Lyndon Johnson, the greatest presidential champion of civil rights since President Grant, because he could not be silent in the face of war and massing killing in Vietnam.

The best way to honor Dr. King is to oppose the things that he opposed and to do the things that he did.


Why do African-Americans still honor JFK?

December 23, 2015


I have long been puzzled by why so many African-American families have portraits of John F. Kennedy in their homes in a place of honor alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.?

President Kennedy was a hesitant and lukewarm supporter of civil rights, which is better than nothing.  If you wanted to honor a white champion of civil rights, why not honor Abraham Lincoln or even Lyndon Johnson?

The historian and writer Vijay Prashad asked this question of an African-American friend and social justice warrior when he was living in Providence, Rhode Island.

Alice Hicks has two pictures on the wall of her living room: portraits of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. [snip]

I remember Alice, even as she struggled with her own health, coming to meetings, sitting down and quietly fulminating about problems, or being on the street at a press conference or demonstration.  She was a pillar of strength. 

Each time I went to pick her up at a meeting, and as I waited for her to get her things or to get me something to drink (which was part of her obligatory kindness), I stared at the portraits.

One day, casually, I asked her why she had a picture of JFK on the wall.  I could understand the King picture, but not that of a man who had not given King and his movement the kind of support necessary.  And besides, I said, it was LBJ who pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.

She smiled at me, ready to indulge my impertinence.  “Of course President Johnson did those things.  And those acts were important.  But were they enough?  What did they get us?  This … ”   Her weak arms opened expansively to encompass not only her living room but her neighborhood, her world.

“President Johnson gave us something.  I accept that.  But it was Dr. King and President Kennedy who allowed us to dream.  President Johnson’s real gift was not even a pale shadow of those dreams.”  [snip]


Dr. King, the NAACP and the FBI: an untold story

January 22, 2015

Life is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel and an open book to those who read.          ==Peter Lee.

It’s long been known how the FBI wiretapped Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and how J. Edgar Hoover regarded King as a pro-Communist subversive.

This morning I came across a review by a blogger named Peter Lee of a book, Devil in the Grove, which tells the opposite side of this story—how the NAACP co-operated with J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-Communist drive in return for the FBI’s investigation of Ku Klux Klan killings in the Deep South.

American Communists were among the strongest and most dedicated supporters of labor rights and civil rights from the 1920s on.  That is why, although small in numbers, they rose to positions of influence in labor unions and civil rights organizations.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

During the start of the Cold War, labor unions such as the United Auto Workers and civil rights organizations such as the NAACP purged their ranks of Communists.  Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP lawyer who successfully argued before the Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional, was in the forefront of the anti-Communist struggle.  Marshall later became the first black Supreme Court justice.

I don’t think this was necessarily opportunism.  There was a legitimate question of dual loyalty.

Communists worldwide in the 1930s supported a Popular Front against fascism, then after the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939 switched instantly to opposition to the “imperialist war,” only to change back just as quickly when Hitler’s troops invaded the USSR.  This shows where their loyalties were.

I’ve been anti-Communist all my adult life, and I still am.  The problem with anti-Communism during the Cold War was not that opposition to Communism was wrong, but that people like me allowed it to override every other moral and political consideration.

Dr. King did not make that mistake.  He spoke out against U.S. intervention in Vietnam.  His most trusted white adviser, Stanley Levison, was once a key financial supporter of the American Communist Party, although, unbeknownst to the FBI, he had ceased to participate in the CPUSA after 1957.

So the FBI wiretapped him, with the knowledge and support of John and Robert Kennedy, and worked to undermine him, while Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP leadership stood aside.


The Preacher, the Black Cardinal and the Grand Inquisitor by Peter Lee on China Matters.  The title of the review refers to Martin Luther King Jr., Thurgood Marshall and J. Edgar Hoover.

The FBI and Martin Luther King by David J. Garrow for The Atlantic (2002).   Background information on the FBI investigation.

Martin Luther King Jr. on nonviolence

January 19, 2015

We Americans honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as one of our national heroes, but the only thing we remember that he stood for is that people should be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skins.

That’s important, of course.  But many of us tend to forget his strong advocacy of economic justice and, even more, we forget his strong commitment to nonviolence, or rather mass defiance as an alternative revolutionary violence.

I am not a pacifist, as Dr. King was.  I do not believe that war is always wrong.  But the stronger reason is that I do not have the moral strength to following his teaching.  I am unable to live up to the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels to love my enemies, resist not evil and do good to them that hate me.

The amazing thing about Dr. King was that he was able, for a short time, to persuade large numbers of Americans to fight without violence and to win.

Considered purely pragmatically, the nonviolent techniques of struggle advocated by Gene Sharp and practiced by Saul Alinsky have been at least as successful as revolutionary violence.

Alinsky’s career in particular is evidence that successful use of nonviolent techniques did not require Christian love or the turning of the other cheek.

My impression is that many black Americans today regard Malcolm X as a more manly role model than Dr. King.  Yet Dr. King made governors and presidents bow to his will, while Malcolm X’s struggles were mostly with other African-Americans.

This statement is not completely fair to Malcolm X, because he was murdered when his work had only just begun while Dr. King was struck down after he had accomplished most of what was in him to do.

But the fact remains that the Black Panthers and other advocates of armed struggle were much more easily crushed than the followers of Dr. King.

The power of oppressive elites is the power to compel obedience.  Their power ceases when the oppressed cease to obey.  I admit that’s easy for me to say when I’ve never put myself at physical risk in any struggle, nonviolent or otherwise.  But I believe it’s true.


A play-goer’s notes for the Shaw Festival 2014

September 2, 2014


I spent Labor Day weekend at the annual Shaw Festival at Niagara-on-the-Lake, just across the Canadian border in Ontario, with members of a play-reading group organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.   We left Friday and got back Monday.

As with the annual Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario, the Shaw Festival consists of a repertory company putting on serious plays, but no longer limited to the plays of George Bernard Shaw and plays of the “Shaw era”.

The whole downtown of Niagara-on-the-Lake is devoted to shops, restaurants and hotels serving tourists, and, for many blocks around, all the homes are bed-and-breakfasts serving tourists.  They are beautiful homes with beautiful gardens, and are no doubt big money-makers for their owners, but the money spent is worth it.


themountaintop0_ORIGINALThe most memorable play I saw was The Mountaintop, which depicted the last night of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, before he was murdered by a white man.  The title is taken from his last speech, in which he said that he, like Moses, was not privileged to enter into the Promised Land, but saw what it was like from a mountaintop.

He was in Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers, whose slogan was, “I am a man.”  This is the theme of the play, that Martin Luther King was a man in a double meaning of that word—that he was a man, a person of dignity and worth, entitled to equal rights, but also that he was a man, subject to the human weaknesses to which all men are subject.

The play lasts for an hour and 40 minutes, and the play’s only two actors were on stage all that time—one playing Dr. King, the other playing Camae, an earthy hotel maid.  About 30 or so minutes of the play is devoted to the interplay of King and Camae.  In one part, she gets up on the bed and delivers her own parody civil rights speech.

Then it develops that she knows more about King than a stranger could know.  He suspects her of being an FBI agent, sent to entrap him into actions for which he could be blackmailed or discredited.  But the truth is stranger than that.

Camae is an angel (like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life”), sent to help prepare him for his coming death.

King doesn’t want to die.  He has plans he wants to accomplish.  In one scene, Camae arranges for him to make a long-distance telephone call to God.

“Hello, God?”
“You sound different from what I expected.”
“You sound like my grandmother.”
“I loved my grandmother.”
“Of course I love You more.”

He tells God how much he loves Him and has tried to do His will.  Then he slips into complaining about how unfair it is that he will not be allowed to complete his work.   Finally he reports with surprise that God hung up on him.

King is shown going through the stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, despair and acceptance.  Near the end of the play there is a photo montage showing events related to civil rights decade-by-decade after his death.  Wisely, there is no statement as to whether this represents a Promised Land or not.

The play strikes a difficult balance between comedy, tragedy and preaching, and avoids slipping into either silliness or offensiveness, which would have been easy to do.  This is due not only to the strong script written by Katori Hall, who as a girl lived in Memphis at the time Dr.King was shot.   It is also due to the strong performances by Kevin Hanchard and Alana Hibbert.


“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right”

January 20, 2014



Fifty years later: still separate and unequal

August 30, 2013



U.S. still hasn’t caught up with Dr. King

August 30, 2013

martin.luther.king.jrThe Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for voting rights and the abolition of Jim Crow laws, but he didn’t stop there.  The 1963 March on Washington was a march for Jobs and Freedom.

He believed that everyone who wanted to work should be guaranteed a job.  This is more relevant now than ever.  All you have to do is to look around, and there is work that needs to be done, from ensuring old people in nursing homes get good care to rebuilding our nation’s bridges and water systems.

Yet the jobs aren’t there.  Why should the upper 1/10th of 1 percent of income and wealth holders be the job creators?  Why can’t we the people create jobs?

Dr. King also believed in a minimum guaranteed income, which I’m not sure about.  I’d rather have a guaranteed jobs program, in which everybody could do something useful according to their abilities and receive an income adequate to their basic needs.  But then again, a guaranteed minimum income might work better than our present hodge-podge welfare system.


If Martin Luther King were alive today…

January 21, 2013

If Martin Luther King Jr. were alive today, he would be leading protest marches against President Barack Obama during Obama’s inauguration ceremony today.

Dr. King's March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1963

King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

He protested the war policies of President Lyndon Johnson, even though Johnson was manifestly a lesser evil than Richard Nixon or George Wallace.  Today he would be protesting President Obama’s global military interventions, his kill lists, his bailout of Wall Street and his continuation of a war on drugs that results in mass incarceration of black men.

Here are links to commentary on Dr. King’s legacy.

Don’t You Dare Conflate MLK and Obama by Glen Ford for the Black Agenda Report.

How We Can Truly Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Marion Wright Edelman for Huffington Post.

The Radicalization of Martin Luther King by Antony Monteiro for the Real News Network.

MLK’s vehement condemnations of US militarism are more relevant than ever by Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian.

Dr. King’s “Drum Major Instinct” sermon

January 20, 2013

Dr. Martin Luther King preached this sermon on Feb. 4, 1968 at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

It was exactly two months before his murder on April 4 in Memphis, Tenn.

Click on The Drum Major Instinct for the text of the sermon.

The forgotten challenge of Dr. King

January 16, 2012

The Real News Network today rebroadcast a program from Jan. 17, 2011, in which anchor Paul Jay interviewed columnist and communications professor Jared Ball on how we Americans celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, but don’t know or forget important things he really stood for.

Click on The Revolutionary MLK for a transcript of the interview.

Martin Luther King Jr. on a pedestal

January 16, 2012

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” will enter the reign of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Heavenly Parent.  Matthew 7:21

It is tempting to depict Martin Luther King, Jr., as a saint, or even as a Christ figure.  The parallels, after all, are striking: a fiery young leader preaches a liberating vision for human community.  He stirs up controversy, confronts the powerful, unsettles the status quo.  He stands with those on the social margins, affirming their dignity.  His eloquent words envision a future that seems impossible, yet stirs the deepest longings of our hearts.  But he is slain, brutally, unjustly, . . .

As with many modern-day prophets—Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, countless lesser-known sisters and brothers—King models for us away of discipleship.  Yet our rush toward canonization is a disservice, both to Brother Martin and to ourselves.

He was a faithful, struggling child of God, bearing, like all of us, his wounds and flaws.

More importantly, sainthood is often our mechanism for domesticating prophets and letting ourselves off the hook.  We elevate and idealize our heroes, effectively diminishing the challenge of their witness.   As Dorothy Day herself put it: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

via Beware of Saints.

Dee Dee Risher wrote this when she was co-editor of The Other Side, a Christian magazine devoted to racial equality.  As she pointed out, when you put someone such as Dr. King on a pedestal, it is easy to find excuses for not following his teaching.  Who among us is a perfect person?

We observe Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday, but we don’t grapple with his ideas about nonviolence and social justice.


Violence, violent rhetoric and Dr. King

January 17, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we honor today, was the target of violence and violent rhetoric.  In 1956, his home was bombed.  He told of his reaction in Stride Toward Freedom.

kingml.testamentI could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”

I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided.

I would not have had the strength to do what Dr. King did.

Advocates of peace and reconciliation are sometimes described as weak and naive.  But after all, it was Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle, not the guns of the Black Panthers, that ended segregation by law in the United States.  It was Dr. King, not Malcolm X, who faced down police and Klansmen, who triumphed over governors and presidents.

Dr. King is the only 20th century American whose birthday is a national holiday.  And it is a true holiday.  We Americans, and not just black Americans, really do honor his memory.  But it is easier to honor him than follow his example.


What do you mean “we,” white man?

August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck

“We will reclaim the civil rights movement,” Glenn Beck says.  “We will take that movement because we were the people who did it in the first place.”

Glenn Beck of Fox News spoke Saturday from the Lincoln Memorial, on the anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  He is one of many right-wingers who are trying to associate themselves with Dr. King’s legacy. They quote Dr. King’s statement, that he wanted his children to grow up in a country where they will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of his skin, to mean he was some kind of libertarian conservative.

According to their interpretation, this statement means that Dr. King was some sort of rugged individualist who was merely asking for a level playing field.  This not only rules out any kind of government action, especially those that help black people proportionately more than white people, but also collective action or solidarity.  Using this logic, right-wingers say the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or the United Negro College Fund are themselves racist, because they’re concerned with black people and not with white people.

This chain of thought takes them some distance from what Dr. King actually thought, as well as some distance from reality. Dr. King’s ideal was not a fair competition, in which some people wound up in palaces and others in the gutter because they deserved to.  His ideal was the beloved community, in which we lived according to the ideals of the Gospel.

Dr. King was the foremost proponent in his time of the Social Gospel, the idea that social justice is part of Christianity.  His last action, before he was murdered, was to rally support for striking garbage collectors in Memphis, Tenn. Glenn Beck is on record as saying you shouldn’t belong to a church that preaches social justice.

The contemporaries of Dr. King now regarded as conservative heroes – Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley Jr. – were all opponents of the civil rights movement.  The living people who actually took part in the movement – Jesse Jackson, Rep. John Lewis, the Shirley Sherrod family – get no respect from Glenn Beck and his comrades.

“We are the people of the civil rights movement,” Glenn Beck keeps saying.  “We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement.” As Tonto said to the Lone Ranger in the old joke – “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” (more…)

Why not Martin Luther King on the $50 bill?

April 28, 2010

A congressman from North Carolina has introduced a bill to replace the face of Ulysses S. Grant with Ronald Reagan on the $50 bill.  The bill has 17 co-sponsors.  The bill probably won’t get anywhere, but the proposal keeps coming up.

U.S. Grant deserves to be honored. He not only led the Union army to victory in the Civil War but was second only to Abraham Lincoln and maybe Lyndon Johnson as a presidential supporter of human rights. Under his administration, federal troops guaranteed the right of black people in the South to vote, to own property and to enjoy other civil rights. This ended when he left office, and civil rights were not restored until the Kennedy-Johnson era.

But if you want to put a 20th century figure on the $50 bill, why not Martin Luther King Jr.? We celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a national holiday, along with Washington’s and Lincoln’s.  Few Americans are more revered than Dr. King, either by their fellow citizens or by the world at large.


Washington’s Birthday

February 22, 2010

Today is the former holiday once known as Washington’s Birthday.  We Americans stopped taking note of it long before it was combined with Lincoln’s Birthday into the meaningless President’s Day.

When I was a boy, Abraham Lincoln was a living figure to me, but not George Washington.  Life in small-town Williamsport, Md., in the 1940s, even though we had radios and automobiles, was close enough to Lincoln’s that I could identify with him; today my life back then is almost as distant as Lincoln’s to the Twitter and Facebook generation.  I could identify with Lincoln’s warm humanity, but not Washington’s distant coldness.  Washington seemed more like an English country gentleman somehow transplanted to Virginia and enrolled in the American cause.

It wasn’t until late in life that I came to appreciate Washington’s true greatness.  I owe this mainly to two books, Founding Father: George Washington by Richard Brookhiser, and His Excellency, George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis.

Washington was not cold and emotionless.  He was man of haughty pride, fiery temper and strong passions, held in check by iron will and self-discipline.  He was a capable general and a capable President, but his true greatness lay in his character.  He staked everything, including his life, on the Revolutionary cause.  He held the Continental Army together in the darkest days of the Revolutionary War, including the winter at Valley Forge when the army lacked shelter, decent shoes, warm clothing and decent food.  In spite of all his frustrations with a sometimes incompetent and corrupt Congress, he never challenged civilian authority.

His greatest moment came at the end of the Revolutionary War, when the victorious former colonies seemed ready to disintegrate into chaos.  He could have made himself dictator, as so many other revolutionary leaders in the same situation have done, but he chose to return to Mount Vernon.  As President, he led a nation that was much more divided than it is now. He held it together by means of his prestige which he maintained through strict impartiality.

Washington was not a perfect person.  He was a slaveowner.  But he, along with Abraham Lincoln, are among the few people in American history of whom the more I learn about them, the more I respect them.  I become extremely irritated at TV advertisements for President’s Day sales, in which Washington and Lincoln are made figures of ridicule.  It is not so much that I object to joking about great individuals as that the cartoonish jokes are all there is.

Many of our patriotic holidays have lost their meaning.  On the Fourth of July, few people think of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence.  On Thanksgiving Day, many give thanks, but few think of the Mayflower Compact.  About the only meaningful patriotic holidays we have left are Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which school children and others do think about the meaning of Dr. King’s life, and Memorial Day, when we do pay tribute to those who gave their lives in the nation’s wars. That’s a reason for celebrating these two holidays all the more.