I am a son of Virginia, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that it was a difficult battle to get Virginia to be the first state in the nation to declare a legislative holiday for Dr. King, a man who dedicated almost every second of his much too short time here on earth to the idea of this nation as a freer, more equitable society for all of its citizens. In fact, it took me eight years to get the legislation passed. But despite the vetoes of two governors, we were able to get it passed into law. And we did so prior to the creation of a National Holiday by the U.S. Congress.
King deserves the appreciation afforded by this federal holiday that bears his name and is acknowledged by all 50 states of the Union. He was a great man who made the lives of every single American better.
I have played a role in the public sphere for many decades now, and I will always consider my part in honoring Dr. King as a great accomplishment. I respect him greatly — few people benefited as mightily from the changes he helped to bring to American life as directly as did I.
But I can’t help but wonder if Dr. King wouldn’t look at how we celebrate his life on this day, and think we, on an annual basis, miss the point that he was trying to make. Every day he lived with the threat that his blood would be spilled so that an idea — one embodied by the word “equality” — would be further codified and recognized as law.
His family was deprived of decades with him for those laws. We as a nation were left without the living presence of a breathing model of grace, humility, and daring steel-reinforced resolve because Dr. King was willing to give his life for those laws.
He truly was the great man of the last half of the 20th century. But would he want us to spend a day such as this focused on what a great man he was? I can’t answer that question definitively. However, based on the life he lived, and the man I knew, I think the answer would be, “No.”
Dr. King didn’t stand against the tide of history for self-aggrandizement. He did it because he supported an idea so powerful every time he spoke it with that strong, resolute voice of his, history had no choice but to move forward. Things changed only inch by inch, but each time he spoke to the greater angels — the ones that for generations had lifted this nation to the status of global beacon of hope — racism, segregation, and outright hate were weakened ever so much.
And so many years after his death, the fruits of Dr. King’s timeless battle for equality continues to live. It lives actively in laws that allowed black Americans — and all Americans — to not face discrimination when choosing a restaurant to celebrate a family milestone. It lives actively in laws that allow black Americans — and all Americans — to send their children to schools that are not legally prescribed to be inferior. It lives actively in laws that allow black Americans — and all Americans — to go to the voting booth and cast ballots for the candidates of their choice.
Yet, I would be remiss if I didn’t also add, Dr. King likely would be dismayed that the Civil Rights struggle has been reduced to nothing more than a celebration of his single life.
He stood on the shoulders of generations of anonymous advocates for justice and lawyers who, case by case, built a rationale and momentum that Dr. King could marshal as one of its foremost standard bearers — but he was far from alone at the front of the parade. And he wouldn’t want us to remember anything but that, I am sure.
Charles Hamilton Houston, Dean of the Howard University School of Law, and his former student, Thurgood Marshall, assembled the cadre of lawyers across the nation — including Virginia’s Spottswood W. Robinson III, my mentor and friend, Oliver W. Hill, my friend and former bridge partner — to enlist in the fight against the laws of segregation. Many of these lawyers served without compensation and were constantly under duress. They also won legal battle after battle, further solidifying equality as the law of the land with each ruling.
Dr. King’s success could not and would not have happened without these brave, and much too often forgotten warriors. We may not remember all their names, but I look at the lives of many African Americans today and see the memorial to these anonymous giants that their daily work was so ferociously fought to achieve. America is not yet perfect, but the lives of these brave men and women made this a better country.
All these years after Dr. King was taken from us, the idea that he and his contemporaries fought so mightily to advance lives on as the law of the land, challenging each and every American to live in common decency tells us we should have since the days of the American founding — providing more evidence that nothing has as much force as an idea whose time has come.
That very thought has gotten me to thinking recently: Is there anyone who misunderstands the sweep of history more than those who think they can kill a man and simultaneously silence an idea? No
The day King was killed he spoke these immortal words: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
He knew he was part of a movement that didn’t rely on one man. He has seen bills signed that created laws that changed lives. He had seen court cases won that fulfilled the words written by our Founders. He knew tomorrow would be better because it wasn’t him alone walking up to the mountain top, but that he was marching to the top with people infused with the idea and empowered by laws that would make the trek able to continue without him.
He had spent his life ﬁghting for something, and it was not prestige or status for himself — it was his idea. An idea that was bigger than one person who had advanced it.
This is not a country run by the caprice of men. It is a nation run according to the law — law that is spawned by leaders brave enough to put forth an idea. So do I think King would want us to spend this day wrapped up in what a great man he was? No. He would prefer we continue to actively engage about the idea, equality, and keep it moving forward.
So in the tradition of Dr. King and those who lived, fought and died for the precepts of justice, equality, and fairness, and the implementation thereof, I let each and every one of you know we still can do better.
We still need to make this nation more just.
We still have the power to make our people freer.
Get up from the stupefying comforts in your life and do something. Anyone can demand what is right and criticize what is wrong. One man or woman with an idea not only can change the world, but has. And the world needs someone to do it again.
There is no greater reminder than this day when we celebrate not only Dr. King but the ideas that he relentlessly fought and died for. The legacy of Civil Rights and Dr. King’s place in it must be honored daily, not just once a year. We must do our part to make sure that we, as a nation, are doing more to advance the cause of equality, for all of the people.