Timeless truths

January 17, 1999

We wanted to talk to him. But that is impossible. So we looked up what he said a long time ago, just to remind ourselves of his eloquence. More than that, really, we wanted to be reminded exactly what he said.

And, it turns out, reading his words was a little like talking to him. He seemed to be addressing issues we still face, with the force of words that never sidestepped. The relevance of his beliefs, then, are not confined to a slender slice of time. The beauty of his words, the power of their impact and the clarity of his vision are not really like fashion; they don't seem smart at one time and look ridiculous at another.

Because he looked directly at everything he saw. At the inequality and want, at human dignity and purpose, at war and peace. We are -- we note -- still facing so many of those fights. We continue to battle over affirmative action. There is racial distrust, if not discord. There is still too much poverty, too much cynicism and too little commitment.

There are still people who put themselves in the breach.

We cannot know what King would have said about the '90s -- with its complicated embrace of the global village and its rush to sell us shoes with existential slogans. What we can know is that there are lessons in his words that we have missed, because we forgot to ask or neglected to remember.

Martin Luther King Jr. would have turned 70 on Friday, and tomorrow marks the holiday in his honor. His words, excerpted from his lectures, speeches, letters and sermons, do not seem to show their age.

On peace

"It is not enough to say, 'We must not wage war.' It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it. We must concentrate not merely on the eradication of war but on the affirmation of peace."

On violence

"I'm tired of violence."

On nonviolence

"I am convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never-ending reign of chaos."

On faith

"The belief that God will do everything for man is as untenable as the belief that man can do everything for himself. It, too, is based on a lack of faith. We must learn that to expect God to do everything while we do nothing is not faith but superstition."

On hope

"I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive goodwill will proclaim the rule of the land. 'And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.' I still believe that we shall overcome."

On goodwill

"Many white Americans of goodwill have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice. But the Negro knows that these two evils have a malignant kinship."

On forgiveness

"Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

This article was prepared by the Orange County Register, where it first appeared.

On greatness

Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve.

On gods

There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the god of science, only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshiped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of possible depressions, stock market crashes and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save or bring happiness to the human heart. Only God is able. It is faith in Him that we must rediscover.

On patience

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say "Wait!" But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your 20 million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society ... when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of "nobodiness" then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

On self-respect

The real victory was what this period did to the psyche of the black man. The greatness of this period was that we armed ourselves with dignity and self-respect. The greatness of this period was that we straightened our backs up. And a man can't ride your back unless it's bent.

On children

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