“It may be true that a law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is, in many ways, my favorite quote of Dr. King’s. Perhaps that’s simply because I employ it often when people talk about how more government can’t make people “better.” Or perhaps I like it because it’s King at his most practical. Don’t get me wrong, the March on Washington speech (“I have a dream. . . ) brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, and King’s strident invocation of the prophet Amos’ call for justice and righteousness to come as a “rolling river” and a “mighty stream” makes me want to take to the streets. But this idea of law protecting people, this idea seems so important to me.
For 18 months of my life, I spent most days buried in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.; I was a research assistant at the King Papers Project. I studied what King said, what he did, where he went. I read commentary on his life and death. I answered research questions from college students who read white-hate propaganda about King’s womanizing and plagiarism (elements of quasi-biography that may have kernels of truth but do nothing to reduce the greatness of King’s work or the goodness of his spirit; if King David can commit adultery and then have that woman’s husband killed while still being a man after God’s own heart, I think we can cut Dr. King a little slack.). I poured over maps of India to see his route for his visit there. I listened over and over again to his sermons as I transcribed his words and reviewed the transcriptions of others. I was absolutely steeped in Dr. King’s life, and I was shaped immensely by his words.
If I left that work knowing a few things, it is these.
1. I have immense privilege because I was born “white” in the United States.
2. Living your calling – as King did with great hesitation and trepidation – is not always easy or simple, but it is always right.
3. The path of peace is hard.
4. I have a responsibility to work for justice. To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
5. The legacy of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow lingers insidiously (and sometimes overtly) in our country.
I was privileged to work for Dr. King, to use my skills and talents to do just a tiny bit to share his words and spread his teachings. On today, his birthday, I remember him and thank him for all he has taught me.
“The time is always right to do what is right.” I can hear him whispering that to me, even today, 42 years after his death. “I know, Dr. King,” I whisper back. “You taught me well.” I know.