On this day, which is no ordinary holiday for no ordinary man, let us speak a truth: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a great American. He loved America, not because of the rightness of America, but because of the rights that were (and remain) so absolutely American: the right to protest for right, the right of freedom of assembly, the right of freedom of speech, the right of the freedom of the press.
King died for those rights, because he was denied his birthright; because he was born in an America that was half-slave, in the South, and anything but free, in the North; because the freedom the Constitution guaranteed was no guarantee of the right of blacks to vote in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and no reason for them to vote in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And yet, King never lost faith in America.
He gave America the last full measure of his devotion.
To those for whom that is not enough, to those for whom Dr. King’s sacrifices will never be enough because of his acts of adultery and plagiarism, I ask: Is his murder not enough to mollify your hatred? When will you let this champion of peace rest in peace?
He was a sinner, like every man, but he was no Everyman. He was a servant of God, but a slave to no man.
Like Abraham Lincoln, King was a leader fluent in the foundational texts of liberty: the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the works of William Shakespeare, and the writings of the Founding Fathers. And, like Lincoln, King had his own burdens to bear. He carried them everywhere without complaint, though he had a right to complain about what we had done to our souls and our soil.
We had, after all, darkened and stained our land with rivers of blood drawn by the lash and repaid by the sword. We had perpetuated America’s original sin, and we had never bound up the nation’s wounds, even after the assassins’ bullets had felled our secular Abraham and our American King.
If ever there was a man with malice toward none, and with charity for all, it was King. He endured the full might and fury of the state. The FBI illegally wiretapped his calls and sent the recordings—the ones between King and his lovers—to his wife. The Bureau told him to kill himself. Other law enforcement officials did their best to kill his spirit. They fired water cannons at his supporters and unleashed attack dogs against his most devoted followers. They jailed him, repeatedly, too.
In turn, King armed himself with the arsenal of democracy. He appealed to the courts not to legislate, but to arbitrate. He approached legislators not to speechify, but to ratify. He asked the president not to needlessly deliberate, but to act with all deliberate speed.
He was a man of the Word, with a passion for upholding the true meaning of the words of one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. He countered physical force with soul force, because he knew—and it is a testament to the greatness of America—that he could awaken the goodness within the conscience of America.
The daybreak did not, however, come without significant toil and strain. It did not shine without blacks having to shelter themselves against a long nightmare of servitude and shame. It did not reveal itself without all Americans having to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
This was King’s dream of reconciliation.
It was a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. It was a dream about the better angels of our nature. It was, in some respects, no dream at all; because King believed in the power of goodwill to triumph against people of ill will; because he summoned the will to match hate with love, until his march became America’s long walk to freedom; because he knew we had the will to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
It was no dream, then, that one of King’s harshest critics would become one of his most impressive converts. Such was the decency of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.
Such was the content of Buckley’s character that in a 1979 column he called for a gesture of recognition of King’s courage, of the galvanizing quality of a rhetoric that sought out a reification of the dream of brotherhood consistent with the ideals of the country, and a salute to a race of people greatly oppressed during much of U.S. history.
By choosing conviction over consistency, Buckley did the right thing for himself and the Right.
I salute Buckley for his humanity because it takes a big man—it takes a good man—to acknowledge when he is wrong.
Mindful of King’s mortal limits, and reverential toward his immortal urge to do God’s will, we must continue his work and work to ensure the legacy of his short life has a longevity that will outlive us all.