The King memorial

Our view: New monument on the National Mall is a fitting tribute to the man whose words awoke the conscience of a nation

  • Ron Smith writes that with an election coming, President Obama is seeking to diversify an already diverse federal workforce, an evident effort to shore up support among minorities.
Ron Smith writes that with an election coming, President Obama…
August 29, 2011

Sunday marks the 48th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic "I have a dream" speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and if not for Hurricane Irene, the day would have seen another mass gathering on the National Mall and another round of speeches, this time a gathering to honor his enduring legacy. Whenever the official dedication of the King memorial takes place — organizers think sometime this fall — the speeches by members of the King family, President Barack Obama and leaders from across the country will draw deserved national attention on the character and accomplishments of one of the great figures of 20th century America. But the memorial, open to the public since last week, does not require their sanctification. King's image and words, carved into stone near the Tidal Basin, are powerful enough.

Today it's nearly impossible to imagine what kind of country America would be were it not for King's life and work. What in retrospect seem such deranged absurdities — separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites, hospitals that segregated blood supplies to enforce a medical "color line," the routine denial of blacks' right to vote and laws making it illegal for blacks and whites to marry — all were once upheld as the natural order of things. That cruelly oppressive system, enforced by the gun and the rope, didn't finally begin to crack until nearly a century after the Civil War, under the determined pressure of the nonviolent revolution King led during the 1950s and '60s.

King called on America to do nothing more nor less than to live up to its founding ideals, and the revolution nurtured by his words awoke the conscience of a nation. For King, overcoming segregation and discrimination was a matter not only of protesting a social evil but of transforming oneself in the process. He was a Baptist minister who believed in God and the divine spirit that animates every human life. But he also believed that faith had to be harnessed in struggle to achieve noble ends.

His theological training convinced him that violence and hatred only bred more of the same, and that lasting change could only be achieved through the redemptive power of love. For King, nonviolence was not a tactic to be employed when convenient and laid aside when other methods seemed more practical but the fundamental moral law of the human condition and the only sure path to a more just society for all.

It was this radical, overarching vision that enabled him to hold together a movement that constantly seemed on the verge of fracturing over strategy and tactics or collapsing under the onslaught of those who would use any means to defend the old order. In doing so, he inspired not only his fellow Americans but people throughout the world to stand up for their basic human rights and dignity. The revolution he spearheaded may still be unfinished, but its repercussions have resounded around the globe from Northern Ireland to South Africa, from Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring.

The larger-than-life granite statue of King on the National Mall is set inside a four-acre promenade ringed by some of the most memorable passages from the speeches that made him one of America's greatest orators. But the true monument to his greatness is the more tolerant and just America he helped bring into being. King gave his life so that rebirth of freedom might prove even more enduring than the words carved in granite that surround his memorial.

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