I HAVE HAD a difficult time with Martin Luther King Jr. over the years. My difficulty springs from several sources. I am a skeptic, and he always seemed a bit naive. He believed in nonviolence as a way of life; I believe in it as a tactic appropriate only to certain situations. Yet despite the differences between King and my own way of thinking -- I have, for example, great respect for Malcolm X, who seemed to be the very antithesis of Martin -- my admiration for King has grown steadily.
I lived in a Baltimore that was almost totally segregated. My encounters with whites had been unpleasant for the most part. I did not understand King's desire for integration with people who seemed so mean and hateful. As I grew older and watched the marches, I saw some whites who seemed to believe in integration. Yet I remained cynical.
When I was 14, I heard King in person at Coppin State College. I enjoyed his speech although I was not overly impressed because I was accustomed to high standards of black Baptist oratory. I lived then in a nearly all black world and the prospect and desirability of integration eluded me. I did not have a white teacher until I was in the ninth grade and I did not share a classroom with a white student until my freshman year in college. Martin Luther King's dream of a colorblind America seemed very remote to me.
By the time I became a college student in the early 1970s I had become almost contemptuous of King. He was not militant enough for my taste, and his stubborn adherence to nonviolence seemed hopelessly naive when police misconduct was sparking riots across the nation. After King's murder in 1968, which appeared to be the result of an FBI conspiracy, some of my exasperation with King dissipated. No matter how misguided I thought he was, he sacrificed his life for the liberation of his people. That was a level of commitment that demanded respect.
Now that I am the same age, 39, that King was when he was assassinated, I have a different perspective on the man than I did as a 21-year-old firebrand. I still have some significant disagreements with King on nonviolence and some of the concessions he was willing to make to keep his interracial coalition together.
Yet, my admiration for him grew over the years because he was always willing to entertain the notion of reconciliation. He was willing to see beyond personal grievance to a larger vision of an America that could be a better place, if only its people had the courage to change. Martin taught me that despite the animosity between the races, we are all going to stay here, so we had better learn to get along before we destroy ourselves.
Perhaps the most practical thing Martin Luther King taught me was that there must be diplomats as well as warriors in the struggle for liberation. No struggle can be successful using only one approach. I still am ambivalent about some aspects of King's career and message, but I am now certain that he was one of the greatest men this country has produced.
R. B. Jones edits the Baltimore Times.