Today we celebrate the life of an American Civil Rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am a son of Virginia, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that it was often a rough battle to get an official holiday celebrating the life of 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 8 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 creating 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 decades now, and I will always consider my part in honoring King as a great accomplishment. I respect him greatly — few people benefitted 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 King wouldn’t look at how we celebrate his life on this day, and think we, on an annual basis, miss the point the 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. He deprived his wife of decades with her husband for those laws. His children sacrificed thousand of hours in the loving arms of their father for those laws. And we as a nation were left without the living presence of a breathing model of grace, humility, and daring steel-reinforced resolve because 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, I think the answer would be, “No.”
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 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, 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 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.
King’s success could not and would not have happened without these brave, and much too often forgotten, warriors from the bar. 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 lawyers and their labor made this a better country.
All these years after 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 as common decency tells us we should have since the days of the American founding — providing more evidence that nothing has as much force than 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.
Forty-three years ago, Senator Robert F. Kennedy came to this very state, Kansas, to begin his campaign for the presidency. He and King may have spent some time as wary adversaries wondering at alternating times whether one could trust the other, but they ultimately shared a desire to help create a freer, more equal, and more humble America. They sought to create a nation that truly could reflect the Biblical allusion of America as the shining city on the hill, long before other politicians used the phrase for cheapened political advantage.
That day at the University of Kansas, Kennedy gave a speech not designed to leave his audience in gilded comfort — the type of speech politicians so frequently make today. No, he challenged every Kansan in that audience to get to work making sure fewer Americans are hungry; to make sure that darker-skinned Americans were given fuller citizenship; to make sure that fewer Native citizens found greater comfort in suicide than in trying to gain the complete right to participate in the American experiment; to make sure that fewer American and fewer foreign citizens died in foreign wars that had no mission, goal, or hope of a peaceful end.
He prodded and poked and pushed those in the audience with idea after idea of how to make this country greater and this world better. He then ended with a call to arms: “I don’t think we have to accept the situation, as we have it at the moment. I think that we can do better, and I think the American people think that we can do better.”
Two and a half months later he was gone; killed by the bullet of a murderer. Many times people threatened the Kennedy’s life, and he had seen his brother felled by an assassin. Regardless, he continued to dare Americans not to make this a better nation, using the hottest of rhetoric designed to make the complacent uncomfortable — to shame them into participating in the cause of creating a more just America.
I don’t claim to be a mind reader, but he lived the life of a man who knew no matter what happened to him personally the seeds he was planting were too plentiful and potent to whither even if he was not watering them with his own hand on a daily basis. He was right. He had more to give when he was killed in June 1968, but the ideas he advanced during 42 years of life form a legacy no bullet could tear asunder.
Since I am in Kansas, I must say a word about Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka — and how unfavorably my hometown, Richmond, compares with the Topeka during the days immediately after the Supreme Court told America to end de jure segregation. In Richmond, notable and influential voices created a cacophony of Sturm und Drang screaming for “Massive Resistance,” “Nullification,” and “Interposition,” while signing on to a dastardly wrongheaded, “Southern Manifesto.”
How did Topeka’s respond? The Topeka School Board, on its own — not at the insistence of the state legislature, governor, or president — one year before the Brown decision, simply voted to outlaw discrimination. Period. In Kansas, there were no years of wasted tax dollars on legal battles; no diverted attention from creating a better society; no children who were denied schooling for five long, unforgiving years. Topeka’s school board merely did the right thing and moved on. That should have been the American example. This was one national hour when Virginia should not have led the way, as we did with the establishment of a holiday in King’s honor; as we did when we elected the First African-American Governor in the United States; as we did in being a prime Southern State to vote for the election of the first African-American President of the United States.
But back to where I began: the legacy of Civil Rights, and King’s place in it. 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 talk about the idea, equality, and keep it moving forward.
So in the tradition of King and those who lived, fought and died for the precepts of justice 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 stupefying comfort and do something. One man or woman with an idea not only can change the world, but has. And the world needs someone to do it again.
Before I leave you today, I would like to say a few words about what happened in Arizona on January 8. Like the rest of the nation I was horrified when I heard — Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords shot in the head at point-blank range, laying in critical condition in a Tucson hospital, targeted by a man whom at best we can tell at this early hour is mentally unstable. Twenty people in the crowd surrounding her were caught in the crossfire, and were shot; six other people including a federal judge, John Roll, and a nine-year-old girl, Christina Taylor Green, died in the attack.
No one should jump to any conclusions about what happened and why — over time law enforcement will piece together the shards of this story so that we may learn from such a dire tragedy.
But I feel safe in saying that the poisonous political atmosphere of this era did nothing to help prevent a situation such as this from happening. The toxicity of our political discourse is nothing new — but that does not make the baseness of modern public debate any less shameful. It is time to cool down the rhetoric; to ratchet down the vitriol. The hateful invectives thrown around during political conversations these days does little to advance the American cause. And, honestly, it goes way too far toward making physical violence seem like the next logical step.
Neither the right nor the left has a patent on this poison, either. The populace deserves better. There was no greater reminder of that than what happened on January 8. Please pray for the family members of the wounded and fallen. And also please do your part to make sure nothing like what happened to Congresswoman Giffords in the future can be traced to unnecessarily hateful political talk. We in this country can settle our civic disagreements at the ballot box. Why do so many forget that. There is no need for us to sound like every lost vote in Congress must next be followed by a second American Revolution.