Martin Luther King, Jr. Day commemorates not only the life and legacy of the great civil rights leader, but also draws our attention to the ongoing struggle for justice and liberty for all people. President Ford was an early defender of racial equality, from his defense of his friend and teammate Willis Ward, through his support as a young Congressman of civil rights legislation, all the way to his defense of The University of Michigan’s affirmative action plans. Already in 1950, Ford wrote: “Personally, I have lived by and believed in the fundamental principle of equality of opportunity regardless of race, color, or creed. I am in favor of such a policy for all citizens and will cooperate to accomplish that objective by the most practical and effective methods.”
Like President Ford, we embrace Dr. King’s vision of a color-blind society under the law where people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. We lament that this dream is under attack from both the left and the right in modern America. We proudly take our cue from President Ford’s prudential and courageous pursuit of racial equality.
Today’s essay features reflections by some of our Ford Fellows.
Ford Fellows have responded to this prompt: On Monday, January 16th, the nation celebrates Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, commemorating “the universal, unconditional love, forgiveness and nonviolence that empowered his revolutionary spirit.” How have Dr. King’s ideas and message shaped your own political thinking and how have they affected your life?
Julian Sanders, Office of the Honorable Gary Peters*:
The late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has always been a mentor to me. Even though he is no longer physically with us, I feel his living spirit periodically. When I first learned of Dr. King, I was just a fifth grader at Mason Elementary in Grand Blanc. My elementary principal, Mrs. Sonya James, tasked me with learning and reciting the “I Have A Dream” speech at my elementary school’s black history program. With the help and guidance of my mother, Kim, I memorized and recited Dr. King’s speech’s ever since and I have engaged in writing and reciting my own speeches resembling his candor and decency.
While acknowledging the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actions and messages, I will always appreciate and remember his advocacy and service to our community and country. Dr. King has impacted my life and shaped my political thinking in many ways including through his selfless acts, his courage, and his spirit-filled approach to equality. In my opinion, the reverend resembled the true meaning of being a leader who leads with conviction, humility, and bravery. Dr. King followed his intuition, standing firm on his beliefs, and remained true to his biblical faith and principles. He was unafraid to do what he believed was right and most importantly, he had strong faith that his actions and dreams would guide our community through racial injustices, segregation, and inequality, leading our nation to a solid rock of brotherhood.
I will always admire Dr. King’s tenacity, his words of wisdom, and his faithful dedication to executing the dream that all people “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.”
If you have questions or want to learn more about Julian Sanders and his community involvement and speeches or views of Dr. King, please check out his website www.ajourneytofulfillment.org.
*Julian Sanders’ views are his own and he is not speaking on behalf of his employer’s office.
Therese Joffre, Hope College:
MLK’s firm stance on universal, unconditional love and forgiveness for one another—including his opponents—is a persistent reminder that our political adversaries typically try to do what they believe is right. Our opponents in politics aren’t rivals just to spite the other side or attack beliefs that we hold to be true, but they are acting in a way that they believe serves the best interests of themselves and the community around them. Thus, when we are fighting for the policies and messages in the political arena, we must remember to hold our rivals to the same love and forgiveness that we express to our family and friends. As future leaders for this country, we must try our best to work with those across the aisle from us by first remembering that we are all trying to serve our country well and lead toward a brighter future. MLK’s messages have shaped my belief that revolutions within politics will be most successful when we treat others with the humanity that they deserve.
Marlie MacDonald, Hope College:
Our generation has grown up in a world where we’ve seen partisanship building rampantly. It’s difficult to keep hope and feel gratitude for all of the work we’re doing, have yet to do, and plan on doing when the world can sometimes feel like it’s crumbling around us. Martin Luther King Jr., to me, is a figure of incredible hope, nonviolence, and forgiveness in a political climate that can be so ruthless. His courage is beyond words and his words rang true in the world then, and ring true now. His words, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” are something that I hold very dear in my heart and in my mind when I’m thinking about politics and its effect on our world and the people in it. MLK has shaped a world in which I can participate in politics with people of every color, culture, and background. His words will live and will continue to cultivate his efforts long after he is gone.
Elan Wilson, SMU School of Law:
In our world scarred by bitterness and vitriol, Dr. King’s legacy speaks to me. He was well acquainted with the darkest pits of human nature and taught us how to climb out: with love. A love that confuses, a love that seems almost inhuman, a love that requires straining, but nevertheless transforms both its giver and recipient. This love inspires me and I strive to center it in my relationships with those who loathe what I stand for.
Sam Jacobs, Grand Valley State University:
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exemplified the virtues of courage and perseverance. I try every day to make these virtues part of my life. His courage in the face of hate and his ability to persevere through intense hardship guide me in my efforts to be virtuous. Out of oppression, he showed the world the importance and impact of nonviolent protest. His ideals are still true today as a part of his enduring legacy. As Gerald Ford said, “We must not let his work die–that will be the highest tribute of all.” As we commentate Rev. Dr. King Jr’s birth, I renew my goal to help those in need and to echo voices that support racial equality.
Kirstin Anderson, University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Sixty years ago this August, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put pen to paper inside the cell of a jail in Birmingham, Alabama. It was here that he wrote the immortal words “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.” But an equally valuable, if sometimes overlooked, insight comes immediately after these words, as King writes:
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
King writes this to a collection of Southern white religious leaders who had criticized his activism in communities in which he did not reside. Here, King uses his response to that criticism to defend not only his methods of resistance, but the integration of Black people into a segregated society.
King was nothing if not a keen observer of human nature. In this passage, he recognizes something profoundly human: we are predisposed to love what is near to us, what is concrete and specific, and treat with suspicion that which comes from “outside,” and appears to us as unknown and a threat. We chafe when the unfamiliar encroaches on our territory, especially when it seeks to alter that territory.
This love of the specific can manifest itself in noble ways: prioritization of one’s family, for instance, or intentional service of one’s community. However, this love can mutate into something foul when our natural desire to protect what we know and love morphs into prejudice and disdain for what we do not know. This pull toward tribalism—toward establishing an “us” and a “them,” a firm in-group and out-group—is perhaps the ugliest of all-natural human tendencies. Within this tribalism, love of the known is eclipsed by the hate of the unknown. It ceases to center what makes specific love noble—love of the family and community—and instead focuses on the (violent if necessary) exclusion of outsiders. This was true of those in Birmingham who rejected the wisdom of King and his fellow activists because of their status as “others,” and it was and is true of those who perpetuate racism and racial segregation, drawing lines of “otherness” on the basis of skin color.
King does not pretend that humans can be unbiased “lovers of humanity.” He recognizes that humans cherish their specific loves. But he rejects that love descending into tribalism along geographical and racial lines within the United States. He does not ask his readers or critics to abandon specific love, but to rethink their understanding of it. “Anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider,” King writes. He means himself as an activist in Birmingham; but also, more broadly, Black Americans as citizens throughout the country. If we draw our lines of specific love around Americans—not Black people or white people, or people in our state or city—then the legitimacy of King’s calls for equality and justice are undeniable. Tribalism obscures this truth and cloaks its hatred of the other in appeals to the love of the specific.
This lesson from King remains an important lesson to this day, as tribalism plagues our political and social landscapes. More than ever, his words in Letter from a Birmingham Jail implore us to reconsider our specific loves, to question if we have crossed the threshold into tribalism, and to redefine our understanding of the specific when it serves the purpose of justice. King’s bold assertion that “anyone who lives in the United States can never be considered an outsider” challenges to us to this day to understand our fellow Americans as fellows; to remember that our shared laws connect us all in an “inescapable network of mutuality.”
Read Director Polet’s reflection on “The Letter From the Birmingham Jail” here.