--The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., February, 1968
Fifty years ago this week, a man who dreamed a dream for America died on a second floor motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. As his friends waited at the car to go out for dinner, that southern preacher, in town to support striking sanitation workers, ran back to his room to get a windbreaker. It was a chilly spring night and he wanted to ward off the cold. Seconds later the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
April 4, 1968.
King was just 39 years old, amazingly accomplished for so young a man. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Leader of the largest non-violent movement for change in the history of the United States. For millions of his fellow citizens then and now, and for me, he was also the conscience of America.
Conscience: the voice within a person and even a community, that reminds us we can always be better than we are at any given moment. Better. Wiser. Kinder. We do not have to give into the base or cruel impulses that tempt us to hate or hurt or hit or lash out or live for self alone. The philosopher King might have framed this as good versus evil. The minister King might have preached it as sin against virtue. The historian King might have quoted the words of Abraham Lincoln, who in his second Inaugural Address, appealed to a warring nation to return to "the better angels of our nature".
Fifty years on from King's death, pundits, historians, politicians and Americans: we will all debate what King's legacy is to the nation he so passionately and tirelessly worked to change for the good. Racial justice and reconciliation. Peace and non-violence. Economic justice for the poor and forgotten. What I most love King for, respect him for, still look to him for, as a role model, icon and fellow pastor, five decades after his cruel death, is how as a leader he always called forth the best from the folks he led. He sought to organize, not a mob to tear it all down, but instead a beloved community to build it all up, and for every last child of God too.
That's what great leaders do: in politics, from the pulpit, in business, on the playing field and in the arts. The greatest leaders seek to bring out the highest of virtues and behaviors in the people they serve. Here's what King had to say in one of his most famous sermons, "The Drum Major Instinct", delivered just two months before his death. “We all have the drum major instinct. We all want to be important, to surpass others, to achieve distinction, to lead the parade. ... And the great issue of life is to harness the drum major instinct. It is a good instinct if you don't distort it and pervert it. Don't give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be the first in love. I want you to be the first in moral excellence. I want you to be the first in generosity.”
Can you imagine a celebrity office holder or preening preacher uttering those inspiring words to a crowd of cheering acolytes in 2018? I'm hard pressed to do so. We are living in troubled times as fraught and frightening as fifty years ago. Wars and rumors of war. A nation torn asunder along lines of class, race, politics and gender. Creation groaning under the strain of overuse and exploitation.
Yet what really scares me now is the scarcity of any moral or inspirational voices like King's. King was not perfect or, a saint. He struggled as all humans do with personal sin and temptation. But when his times called for a powerful moral voice to call forth, to call America back to it highest ideals and hopes, leaders like King spoke up. Appealed to America's most noble aspirations. Called citizens to be good neighbors, to work for non-violent change and to create a nation where all people, every last one, are a part of the American dream. No one left out.
Instead too many of the voices of leadership I hear in 2018 appeal most often to the very worst in us. Try and convince us it is most patriotic to pay as little in taxes as possible, to turn off the light in the Statue of Liberty until further notice, and to define a nation as great, not by self-sacrifice but instead self-centeredness. Every person for themselves. Such rhetoric doesn't appeal to the better angels within me. How about you?
So I miss you Reverend King. Your voice. Your leadership. But most of all, I miss your conscience.