“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Norway 1964 (watch the 12-minute speech here – quote starts at 7:31)
This is a break from my normal posts about craft beer and food and travel to talk about giving. In this case, giving personal time in service of each other and our communities. On our last full day in Washington, D.C. we made it a point to go see the new Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr memorial on the national mall across the tidal basin from the Jefferson and in the shadow of the Lincoln. Remarkably, it was around 3PM on a Wednesday afternoon and we found street parking immediately. If you are headed west on Constitution, take the last left turn before the I-66 and there’s a strip of 3-hour street parking. Not really sure why it was untapped. Never knew about it when I lived in D.C., though honestly I didn’t spend too much monument time, anyway. But there you have it. A good parking tip is always nice, right?
Back to the experience. Seeing this tribute to a man who gave up a relatively comfortable middle-class life to get beaten up, spat on, insulted and—ultimately—murdered in the name of those who are less fortunate had a few unexpected and profound impacts on me. I say unexpected because it’s not like this is the first time I’ve ever seen or experienced a tribute to Dr. King. I went to Morehouse and there was a big statue in front of a massive auditorium named after him. In Atlanta there are all sorts of tributes to his legacy. Heck, he was one of the few leaders of the Civil Rights movement teachers always felt comfortable praising and talking about growing up. They never mentioned A. Philip Randolph in any meaningful way, or Bayard Rustin–an openly gay African-American man instrumental in the march on Washington. In any case, we walked over from our car and there is this massive vertical stone structure at least 30 feet tall. On either side of the statue there are sections of a curved gray wall with a series of quotes on them. The quote above is on one of those sections, and it spoke to me for a number of reasons.
I share the belief that people can have food, education, dignity, equality and freedom. To that list, I’d add access to health care (treatment AND prevention). Reading Dr. King’s words and thinking about his sacrifices made me feel small. It also made me feel like I should be doing a hell of a lot more than I am. The petty infighting and politics that get in the way of improving life for more people are just dumb. Wishing neither existed is fine, but that and a dollar will get me a cup of coffee. But what is true, I think, is that there are ways to make a difference in the areas in this quote while staying out of the political mess. Hunger, education and dignity are universal truths and all political parties can see that in some measure. So maybe that’s where I should focus. The other thing I thought was how my view of achieving these goals may very well differ from Dr. King’s. I remember in law school working on research for a professor about the Reconstruction era case of Robert “Peg Leg” Williams. The professor wrote a book called Only one place of redress. Here’s a link to a positive review and a critical one. Bad, oppressive, racist, homophobic, sexist laws need to be changed. No question. But often the state just isn’t the answer. Or at least not the only one. And sometimes our laws are just used to protect some groups against encroachment from others. That Oslo speech above has another quote at about 10 minutes in which Dr. King acknowledges both the pilots and the ground crew who enabled him to accept the award. The march on Washington was as much about the freedom to work as the freedom to exist and the picture is, not surprisingly, more complicated than organized labor or corporate interests being “bad” or “good.” Life isn’t that neat. But I digress. And while I’m digressing, I believe in education as the best place to look for solutions. This is because it pulled me out of the dismal circumstance I’d have otherwise found myself in. In this country we should be arguing over how to get every child the best education, in whatever path their desire and ability will carry them. Instead we spend time fighting about whether the state or the family should be the primary educator. We bicker about ineffective school systems or districts who put fear of lawsuits in front of teacher control of the classroom. Or we bemoan the cost of education. It’s an offensive collection of arguments. The plain truth is that education is the only possible way for someone to achieve in a free society. Dr. King’s life, like many others, was a testament to that point.
But putting aside the differences I may have in the “how” of achieving some of the results people like Dr. King sought, they are overwhelmingly the right results. And an important story for me, as I reflect on this public project is not just what Dr. King’s life meant to western society. It’s what building monuments like this can mean to any society. It’s the inspiration they can generate, that can’t be easily measured but can spur action in the people who visit. That matters. It’s got to be worth what we paid in Federal taxes to help fund making this project happen. I lived in D.C. for four years but other than a trip to the Supreme Court I never remember feeling so personally impacted by our nation’s capital.