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Timeless truths


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

A hundred times I have been asked why we have allowed little children to march in demonstrations, to freeze and suffer in jails, to be exposed to bullets and dynamite. The questions imply that we have revealed a want of family feeling or a recklessness toward family security. The answer is simple. Our children and our families are maimed a little every day of our lives. If we can end an incessant torture by a single climactic confrontation, the risks are acceptable. Moreover, our family life will be born anew if we fight together. Other families may be fortunate enough to be able to protect their young from danger. Our families, as we have seen, are different.

On culture

When an individual is no longer a true participant, when he no longer feels a sense of responsibility to his society, the content of democracy is emptied. When culture is degraded and vulgarity enthroned, when the social system does not build security but induces peril, inexorably the individual is impelled to pull away from a soulless society. This process produces alienation -- perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society.

On affluence

All too many of those who live in affluent America ignore those who exist in poor America; in doing so, the affluent Americans will eventually have to face themselves with the question that Eichmann chose to ignore: How responsible am I for the well-being of my fellows? To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.

On allegiance

In a multiracial society no group can make it alone. It is a myth to believe that the Irish, the Italians and the Jews ... rose to power through separatism. It is true they stuck together. But their group unity was always enlarged by joining in alliances with other groups such as political machines and trade unions. To succeed in a pluralistic society, and an often hostile one at that, the Negro obviously needs organized strength, but that strength will only be effective when it is consolidated through constructive alliances with the majority group.

On love

Do to us what you will and we will still love you. ... Bomb our homes and threaten our children and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. ... But be assured that we'll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.

On change

The nonviolent approach does not immediately change the heart of the oppressor. It first does something to the hearts and souls of those committed to it. It gives them new self-respect; it calls up resources of strength and courage that they did not know they had. Finally it reaches the opponent and so stirs his conscience that reconciliation becomes a reality.

On glory

From a speech the night before he was assassinated:

I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

-- From "The Words of Martin Luther King Jr.," Newmarket Press.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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