Today happens to be Martin Luther King Day in the US. His actual birthday was January 15 and the third Monday in January is the day designated to celebrate the famous civil rights leader who was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968, aged only 38. Martin Luther King has entered the pantheon of great American orators, up there with Abraham Lincoln and in a different league from modern leaders acclaimed for their eloquence, such as Barack Obama.
Some of this status comes from the manner of his death, cruelly struck down at the height of his powers. Some comes from the style of his discourse, as a Southern Baptist preacher and deeply committed Christian, with its powerful Biblical echoes. And some comes from his patent courage and nobility, as a natural leader in the civil rights campaign in the US.
Not long ago an old friend kindly gave me a copy of Face to Face with John Freeman: Interviews from the BBC TV series. I just read the interview Martin Luther King gave Freeman in 1961, when he was aged 32 and was struck by the strength of his personality.
Questioned by Freeman as to when he had first become conscious of discrimination, he related an incident when he was only six years old; the two white boys who had been his best friends suddenly couldn’t play with him anymore. His mother told him, “You must never feel that you are less than anybody else. You must always feel you are somebody and you must feel that you are as good as anybody else.”
King mentioned the segregation and humiliations suffered by his people as he grew up. Asked why he never responded violently to the many provocations, he simply replied, “I think some of it was a part of my native structure… I have never been one to hit back too much.”
More profound is his response to Freeman enquiring if he ever felt lonely of frightened in his position: “Even in the moments of loneliness, something ultimately came to remind me that in this struggle, because it is basically right, because it is a thrust forward to achieve something not just for Negro people, but something that will save the whole of mankind, and when I have come to see these things I always felt a sense of cosmic companionship. So the loneliness and the fear have faded away…”
Soon to be inaugurated as president, Donald Trump has often repeated that he wants “to make America great again.” He sees this solely from an economic and militaristic point of view. But America will only be great when she remembers the “dream” of a united country, which was so memorably and passionately described by the late Martin Luther King.