Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever reads my columns here in the Valley Sun. So when I get e-mail from a reader asking me to respond to a specific topic, I comply. Got one the other day. It said, "Hey, Dr. Joe! Write something about Martin Luther King; his birthday is on January 15th."
I hit reply and answered, "OK!"
I'll tell you a story, just the way it happened. It was Aug. 28, 1963. My buddies and I were bicycling from the Bronx to the Catskill Mountains. We were going camping, trying to make the best of a week's suspension from working at Yankee Stadium for fighting with some fans.
We stopped at a roadside diner to see about if a radio was available. History would be made that day and I wanted to hear it.
"Hey, mister, you got a radio I can borrow?"
"What for, kid?," he answered.
"I want to listen to Martin Luther King; he's speaking in front of the Lincoln Memorial in D.C."
He asked, "Who's Martin Luther King?"
"He's the guy marching for civil rights," I said.
I remember everyone in the diner huddled around a transistor radio and listening to Dr. King deliver the most profound message ever to reverberate within the shadows of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.
He was trying to collect on a promissory note signed by Thomas Jefferson. How could Jefferson, a mere mortal, create something as prophetic as the Declaration of Independence? The second paragraph begins with the perfect sentence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…."
Well, sort of equal, but not really. In 1776 he forgot about 500,000 slaves. The declaration was a philosophically perfect document written by an imperfect man. Jefferson was a genius tempered by the classics and a slave to the principles of 17th-century philosopher and thinker John Locke. He promised, "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness." But he couldn't deliver. His greatest achievement consisted of ideals.
He left America's greatest moral challenge to his successors. It would be the marchers led by Dr. King who would eventually set us free. If all men are created equal, then the rights of all men are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.
Dr. King was an advocate for justice and for expressing one's conscience. Humanity was lifted by his efforts, and the fruition of his dream enhances all life. Is not Dr. King's dream, "…that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," also our dream?
Character should be the essential criterion concerning how we are judged. Dr. King's life was dedicated to that principle.
Have we evolved from the oppression that created second-class citizens in America? I can't answer that question because ultimately we must ask that of ourselves. You cannot legislate morality, because principle comes from within us and validates character. Principle becomes creditable when it evolves not from legislation, but from within.
Dr. King possessed a quiet dignity. He knew that dignity was not bestowed by others, but rather evolved from knowing who you are and by taking your rightful place in the world. When you have self-determination, you have dignity.
His dream was simple. It was that, "…all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the Negro spiritual, 'Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty; we are free at last.'"
After Dr. King finished his speech that day, the diner remained silent. I thanked the man behind the counter for the radio. He smiled as though he had something to say, but remained silent. My buddies and me left and headed north.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.