I GREW UP in New Jersey in the 1960s as a WASP with some strong prejudices. President Kennedy's assassination was most memorable for endless stints in front of the television, the death of a dream and a son's final salute. Years later, Robert Kennedy's death seemed, at the time, almost inevitable. In between fell Martin Luther King Jr. What stands out is the memory of a few schoolmates who cheered. The words come back to me: "It's about time . . . He got what he deserved . . . Give Ray a medal."
This wasn't Ku Klux Klan country. Just a largely white suburb of Philadelphia. I wasn't sure how to take it. In one way I loathed such attitudes. But in another, I was acutely aware of the bigotry in my own soul, one spawned for seemingly no reason except that I was white and others were, well, not white. Something inside me wanted to change, to be able to say, "All people are family, we're all in this together, let's just love one another." But something else reared up when I watched the King marches on TV, or passed one of "them" in the school hall or had a run-in at the mall. They only time I could honestly cheer a black man was on the football or baseball field.
I hated what I saw in my own heart. Yet, I couldn't seem to escape it. Even today, I haven't completely. It's there in some dark niche, always ready to spill a little mental venom into my brain.
The only thing that has given me a sense that this horror called prejudice and hatred can be conquered was my own personal encounter with Jesus Christ. In August 1972, I committed my life to following Christ. His words, "Love your neighbor as yourself," "Blessed are the peacemakers," and "Give to him who asks of you" kindled something vibrant and hopeful inside me. There was a freedom, a love that I'd never felt before. Stories like that of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan became constellations of my outlook.
It was through that experience that I came to see in Martin Luther King something marvelous and worthy of respect, admiration and love. His words, of course, were always thrilling: Free at last, free at last, great God Almighty, free at last. And, I have a dream today. Words we all know.
But something else struck me, something that continues to inspire regardless of whatever flaws King may have had as a human being. King never claimed to be Jesus Christ; he only claimed to preach His message and to be one of the sinners Jesus came to save.
What inspired me was something King did early in the movement. On the evening of Jan. 30, 1956, as King spoke in a Baptist church, someone bombed the King family home. King's wife and 10-month-old baby escaped injury or worse only by chance. Later that night, more than a thousand of King's angry followers assembled on his lawn, ready for war with guns, knives, clubs and broken bottles.
Yet when King appeared on the destroyed porch to speak, he didn't hesitate. He said, "If you have weapons, take them home. If you do not have them, please do not seek to get them. We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence . . . We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries: 'Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pay for them that despitefully use you.' This is what we must live by. We must meet hate with love."
He concluded, "Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with this movement. Go home with this glowing faith and this radiant assurance."
Those are not words some charlatan pulls out of a hat in a desperate moment. I tend to think they were words God himself gave King that night, even as Jesus promised he would in a speech to his disciples. But it really doesn't matter. What his words showed, unequivocally, was that King was a man who stood on what he believed.
Such leaders are rare. You don't see them often -- just a few times a century. Usually they get shot, strung up or crucified before their time.
But that doesn't matter either. Because their words will last. And with the words, the dream.
Mark R. Littleton writes from Columbia.