This week’s annual celebration of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a tough reminder that America has few, if any, leaders with the moral standing to judge the current civil rights climate, let alone lead it through a difficult period.
We have flashes of greatness from people who inspire us to analyze or believe great things about ourselves and the country at large, but none have the strength of character or experience to back up their words.
Democrats recently hailed media mogul Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes as an inspiration toward a more equal America. They even painted her defiant “Time’s Up” admonitions as the initial volley of the 2020 presidential campaign.
And conservatives see President Donald Trump as someone who has the chutzpah to speak truth to another entrenched and powerful establishment – the liberal media – and is getting a ration of retributive hate in return.
But even these two modern examples fall short of the leadership America needs and deserves.
Despite Trump’s positives, few conservatives would likely want to share a foxhole, or even a meal, with our chaos-stoking tweeter-in-chief. And few true-blue liberals would want to spend time with the zillionaire Oprah, who has lived a cushy, fairy-tale existence devoid of any real purpose besides touting the latest diet craze.
Both Trump and Oprah are aliens, literally living in gold-leafed penthouses cut off from the real world and real life. And it’s impossible for people still living in the real world to wholeheartedly admire and identify with such alien life forms.
Enter – or re-enter – Dr. King, one of America’s greatest heroes, who is truly worthy of our admiration. Unlike Trump and Oprah, King was on our level. He may have used language more suited for the ethereal plane or an ivory tower, but King was also down in the trenches with the average man. He was the real deal – a hero walking among the people. We still listen to what he said long ago because he lived, breathed and died for what he preached.
And King preached a lot. Google his famous quotes for examples of his great wisdom. Despite his efforts, every MLK Day I’m reminded how we still fall short of his ultimate civil-rights dream.
“I have a dream,” he famously said, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
That statement has reverberated into every corner of the country for five decades, and still we wonder if we will ever live up to his call for a colorblind society. I think we can, if our power structures would just let us.
The powers-that-be in education, media and politics emphasize a person’s exterior characteristics now more than ever. The media go out of their way to find stories highlighting race and gender issues. Colleges use racial considerations when accepting students. Political campaigns play the race and gender cards in a bid for votes. Is this what King would have wanted, or what he died for? I don’t think so.
On several fronts, we’re further from King’s ideal than ever. Internal qualities don’t matter nearly as much as one’s color, sexual orientation or gender. There are so many “protected classes” it’s hard to keep them straight. We need to get back to pursuing what King thought was important: Character. We need to forget about appearance and judge ourselves and others based on the contents of character, which include knowledge, wisdom, integrity, trustworthiness, passion and compassion.
Does Trump, our culture’s prime shaper, demonstrate King’s ideal of character? Liberals would shout “No” from the mountaintops, but conservatives, despite their reservations regarding Trump’s madman tweets, would say his policies reveal someone who has the country’s best in mind. In King, there was no rationalization or nose-holding needed. He was a leader who inspired black and white, rich and poor. He spoke truth to the establishment, and his righteous indignity was heartfelt.
King would be 89 now and, boy, we could use his wisdom and leadership. How would he diagnose today’s civil rights climate? Positively? Critically? I think he’d observe regular Americans of all colors and genders getting along just fine, despite the hype they hear. He’d then conclude that our out-of-touch elites are merely using race and gender as a way to raise money for their campaigns, media outlets or school endowment funds.
Too bad there’s no one out there with the standing to say such a thing. James Earl Ray killed him 50 years ago this April 4.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.