Despite all the activity around Martin Luther King Day, every year King's real message becomes more obscured. For most Americans he has been reduced to posters and postage stamps, an excuse for a long weekend. But, in these days of heightened fear, acute injustice, and daily warmongering, King's example of nonviolent resistance, of overcoming enemies with love, is more relevant than ever. In fact, it is the only solution to the problems facing us, both at home and abroad.
In spring 1965 I marched with King in Marion, Alabama, and experienced first-hand his deep love and humility in the face of injustice.
I heard about the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a young man shot eight days earlier when police broke up a rally at a church in Marion. Bystanders later described a scene of utter chaos: White onlookers smashed cameras and shot out streetlights, while police officers brutally attacked black men and women, some of whom were kneeling and praying on the steps of their church.
Jimmie's crime was to tackle a state trooper who was mercilessly beating his mother. His punishment: to be shot in the stomach and clubbed over the head until almost dead. Denied admission at the local hospital, he was taken to Selma, where he was able to tell his story to reporters. He died several days later.
Deeply shaken, we attended a memorial service in Marion. Lining the veranda of the county court house across the street stood a long row of state troopers, hands on their nightsticks, looking straight at us--the same men who had attacked Marion's blacks only days before. As we left the service for the burial, we passed first them, and then a crowd of hecklers. The police, armed with binoculars and cameras as well as guns, scanned and photographed each one of us; the hecklers followed us with insults and jeers.
At the cemetery, King spoke about forgiveness and love. He pleaded with his people to pray for the police, to forgive the murderer, and to forgive those who were persecuting them. Then we held hands and sang, "We shall overcome." If there was ever cause for hatred or vengeance, it was here. But none was to be felt, not even from Jimmie's parents.
The reason for this is probably best explained in this passage from King's book Strength to Love:
"Love even for our enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world. ...Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity. By its very nature, hate destroys and tears down; by its very nature, love creates and builds up. Love transforms with redemptive power."
King's commitment to love as a political weapon grew out of his faith, but there was a good streak of pragmatism in his thinking as well. He knew he and others involved in the civil rights movement would have to live for decades to come with the same people they were now confronting. If they let their treatment embitter them, it would soon lead to violence, which would only lead to new cycles of repression and embitterment. Rather than breaking down the walls of racial hatred, it would build them higher. Only by forgiving their oppressors, King said, could they end the "descending spiral of destruction." Only forgiveness could bring about lasting change.
"To our most bitter opponents we say: 'We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you...But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win our freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.'"
King seemed utterly fearless, though death must have continually lingered at the back of his mind. Just days before his assassination he admitted as much, and explained why he refused to yield to fear:
"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. And 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! So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I am not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"
This is the confidence and hope we need to meet the challenges now facing us. When we are ready, like Martin Luther King Jr., to lay down our lives for the cause of peace, we too shall overcome. We, too, can disarm our enemies with love. I am certain of it.