Martin Luther King, Jr. would not have been disappointed that the dedication of a national monument in his honor has been postponed due to a hurricane.
The dedication ceremony was scheduled to take place on Sunday, the 48th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The nation’s newest monument, located near the Tidal Basin not far from the Lincoln Memorial, features King partially chiseled from a small mountain of granite. It is meant to be the embodiment of his call during the most turbulent days of the civil rights movement to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. did not seek to become the leader of a national uprising in the 1950s to finish a battle that had begun in another century, during a war on American soil that nearly tore the nation to pieces.
The young preacher with a rumbling baritone and inspirational cadences was 26 years old when he was summoned from the pulpit of his father’s church in Atlanta to lend his voice to a bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama. With the simple act of refusing to take a seat in the back of a city bus, Rosa Parks had delicately laid down a gauntlet that challenged the entire structure of a flawed society which tolerated segregation and second-class citizenship.
King mounted the national pulpit and held up a mirror to America. He challenged Americans to look at a nation that had failed, miserably and for almost two centuries, to live out the true meaning of its creed. His rhetoric inspired thousands to join the civil rights movement, but these followers soon learned that their new leader required something of them which was a non-negotiable condition of his leadership.
He told them he would lead them only if they could hold themselves to the examples set by Gandhi and Jesus. He told them they could not raise a hand in anger to their oppressors, no matter how harsh the oppression. He told them this was the only way their movement could succeed. He told them they must be prepared to die a martyr’s death to save America.
And then he set about creating his own example. King was jailed, his house was bombed, his phone was wiretapped and his peaceful marches were met with high-pressure water hoses, snarling police dogs and thugs wielding billy clubs. America saw itself in King’s mirror, standing idly by or worse, spewing epithets at the freedom marchers.
In August of 1963, America held its breath as King summoned the movement to march on Washington, D.C. The newspapers were filled with warnings that violence was expected, that federal troops were being readied to defend the nation’s capital. Everyone braced for an explosion of pent-up anger, a bill come due for all the bombings, lynchings, beatings and bullying.
Instead, one hundred years and a few weeks after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of Abraham Lincoln’s statue and asked America if it still had a dream.
King knew that every minute he stood before America and challenged it to live up to its ideals he was a minute closer to facing a bullet he knew had his name on it. He delivered his own eulogy, telling us to ignore the Nobel Peace Prize and other honors that were bestowed upon him, to remember that he was “a drum major for peace, a drum major for righteousness, a drum major for freedom.” He told us he would not get to the promised land, but that if we would “keep on keepin’ on,” we could.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had many opportunities to avoid the fate that awaited him. Other civil rights leaders would have stepped in to take his place had he chosen to go home and resume being a father to his four young children. He must have thought about doing just that many times as he stood before the mountain of despair with his chisel.
Instead, on a visit to Memphis in 1968 to lend support to striking garbage workers, he stepped forward on a motel balcony and took the bullet he knew was coming.
King took that bullet and laid his body across the vast chasm of hatred and ignorance that had divided this nation and, with his dying breath, he told us: “America, walk across my back. You can make it to the other side. You can make it to the promised land.”
And in the years that followed, every time we faltered, there was an echo: “America,” King whispered. “You’ve got to keep on keepin’ on.”
The National Mall will be empty this weekend, as a mighty storm makes its way through Washington. The storm will pass and, in a few weeks, the rescheduled dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will take place. Thousands will attend as King, who would have been 83 years old in January, is formally enshrined on the nation’s pantheon of heroes.
But this week, the Martin Luther King, Jr. we remember will be standing alone to face the harsh winds and driving rain of a terrible cataclysm. He will not bow to the forces that have been unleashed to bring him down and he will not strike back in anger. When the eye of the hurricane passes over, we will see him, a solitary figure in the calm at the heart of the storm.
A stone of hope hewn out of a mountain of despair.