Editorial: Learning From the King Legacy

—Becky O’Malley
Tuesday April 08, 2008

Reminders of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, 40 years ago on Friday, were everywhere last week. His sonorous voice was replayed again and again on every radio station—his picture was in every paper. For me, the most immediate and vivid memories of that dreadful week in 1968—indeed, of that whole dreadful year—came flooding back at the Tuesday farmers’ market, to which Full Belly Farms brought huge fragrant bunches of lilacs. 

Most people who lived through the several tragedies of the ’60s can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard John Kennedy had been shot. For me at least the subsequent and accelerating shocks tended to run together, the details getting less and less vivid as they got closer together. So my memories of the week when Dr. King was assassinated are fragmentary.  

We were living then in an old former rooming house on a busy town street in the Midwest. With great effort, we’d dug up two ancient lilacs from the yard of a demolished house and transplanted them into our own tiny front yard to provide a welcome screen from the traffic. On April 4, 1968, they were in full and glorious bloom, earlier that year than usual, for the first time since we’d lived there. 

Blooming lilacs will always be linked in my mind with Walt Whitman’s powerful lament for Abraham Lincoln, also assassinated in April, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. We stayed home with our two small kids all that week, glued to the television as the horrifying events unfolded. At some point I pulled down from a high shelf my copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of many masterpieces purchased but never assimilated when I was an undergraduate literature student. Whitman’s description of his overwhelming grief at losing Lincoln seemed to give voice to our own feelings. 

Everyone we knew was in mourning. One friend, a tough-minded self-sufficient woman (as one of the first women computer scientists, she had to be), called and said she was on her way over a noodle kugel. Why? I asked. It’s what we do when someone is sitting shiva, she said. 

Since I’d never known her to show the slightest interest in either cooking or religion, some explanation was in order. She told me about the Jewish custom of having a bereaved family stay home for about a week while their friends and neighbors come to pay calls, often with gifts of food, including noodle kugels, a traditional sweet comfort food, a kind of pudding made with noodles and often raisins. And she was right, we were all part of the same grieving family then, huddled together in our homes trying to make sense of what was happening, sitting shiva for a family member most of us had never met. 

As it happened, I had met Dr. King, just for a moment, in 1964. We spent just a day at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, to lend a little support to the Freedom Democrats who were trying to be seated as Mississippi’s delegates. Number One child was left with my parents that day, and I was hugely pregnant with Number Two, but we thought that at least we could contribute a little sign-waving and shouting to the cause. We encountered King having breakfast with a couple of associates in an ordinary cheap local restaurant. Those were still innocent days—no one worried that he might be in danger. I plucked up my courage, went over to his table and asked to shake his hand, and he graciously agreed. (I probably had some primitive belief that it would confer a special blessing on my unborn child. In truth, though she’s turned out to be a stalwart advocate for justice, so have the other two.) 

From all the King tributes I’ve seen this last week, one fact which I’d never thought about before jumped out at me. Martin Luther King was only 39 years old when he died. From my current vantage point, that now seems amazingly young, considering what he accomplished: younger than two of my children are now. When he died I was only 28 myself, so 39 seemed to be middle age or worse, but it now seems like the trailing edge of youth.  

This perspective makes the fabricated “experience” dispute between the Democratic presidential candidates look even sillier. It’s clear that Obama is no green kid—he’s plenty old enough to be expected to continue his already impressive accomplishments if elected. But that doesn’t mean that Hillary Clinton is too old just because she’s sixty. Like many of us, she devoted a substantial part of her energy in her younger years to her spouse and child, but she’s still got plenty to spare for the public good—look at Nancy Pelosi, who had five kids before she got into gear in public life. It’s time for both candidates to stop drawing imaginary lines in the sand and get on with the serious work of the nation.  

And how have the rest of us done with getting on with the important things in the forty years since King died? We’ve had more years than he had on earth to get a few more jobs done.  

On the plus side, legally-sanctioned discrimination on the basis of race is gone. Many informal social barriers have fallen—many of us are now part of mixed-race families like Barack Obama’s. But the playing field has not yet been levelled for all Americans. As Obama pointed out in his landmark address, economic and other scars of slavery still oppress many of the descendants of slaves.  

And sadly the other two scourges to which Martin Luther King devoted his short life are still with us: war and poverty. The current violence in Iraq is starting to seem even worse, even more pointless, than the war in Vietnam which he so eloquently denounced. The Memphis sanitation workers King went to Memphis to help did get their union, but it’s still a weak one—their current pay and benefits are not much to boast about. People like them at the bottom of the economic ladder are still not making it. 

We have a few new problems, too, the precipitous decline of the climate of Earth chief among them. Even if Martin Luther King had lived and worked until today, there would still be plenty to do. Though we need saints and heroes like King to inspire us, for the hard jobs still ahead we also need to keep in mind the exhortation in the old spiritual: “Keep your hand on the plow—hold on!” Translated for the post-agricultural, that means we need to push ahead steadily in a straight line without wavering if we want to accomplish our goals. King probably knew that song well, and it’s still good advice.