Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed the papers allowing construction to proceed on a monument to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the National Mall here in Washington. This is an important thing and I am not sure I would have known how important until a couple of years ago.
I try to keep up with reading, but I am a slow reader and there are always so many books to read. But, sometimes, something hits you and you realize that a gap in your knowledge needs to be addressed. I was once asked to review Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography of Thomas Cranmer and I told the editor I could not do so because I simply did not know enough about Tudor England. This episode led to a twenty book spending spree over the next couple of days and within a couple of months, I had filled in this hole in my knowledge. Of course, I did not anticipate the TV-drama "The Tudors" making it easy!
A similar moment occurred when I was giving a poor justification for the King Memorial being built at such a prominent place on the Mall. I knew it seemed right, but I could not muster a good enough argument. And, there is something about martyrdom that casts a cloud over a man’s life, which may be appropriate but can also obscure the historical record, as witnessed by the continued ranking of John F. Kennedy as one of the greatest presidents in U.S. history, which the historical record does not support.
So, I went out and bought Taylor Branch’s three volume history of the King years, which is a bit more than a biography and a little less than a comprehensive history of the times. As I have noted, I am a slow reader, but I rushed through these pages, and the pages are many with each volume coming in at about 800-1,000 pages. I could not put the book down. I read it while eating breakfast and lunch. I read it at bedtime and would wake up with the book sprawled across my chest. There were parts of King’s career with which I was unfamiliar, aspects of his theology that were unknown to me, obstacles he overcame of which I had known but the strength of which I had not previously appreciated. I fell in love with Dr. King and what he did for this country, amazed at how one man with one voice, and a zealous commitment to non-violence, could change the nation’s path, its mores, its laws and its culture. King deserves more than a memorial on the Mall, more than a holiday, although both of these can aid in the greater objective. King deserves to have his life known by every American, the way Lincoln’s or Jefferson’s life is known. In the on-going, never-ending way that each generation is called upon to pick up the traditions of their elders, make them their own, and pass them on to the next, the name of Dr. King deserves to be inscribed on every American heart. If you don’t understand him, you will not be able to understand yourself, so profound was the effect he had on this country.
Of course, I knew how the story ended. Indeed, my first public memory is of being a little boy and watching King’s funeral on television. My mother was baking a pie. She would take the extra dough, wrap it with cinnamon and sugar and makes these little baked circles. She brought some in for me to eat as I watched King’s casket on television, being carried through the streets of Atlanta on a mule cart. And so, as I neared the end of the third volume of Branch’s magnum opus, I slowed down. I think it took me two weeks to finish the last hundred pages. I had fallen in love with this great American and, even this morning as I type these words, my eyes well up at the thought of Dr. King’s murder.
The memorial on the Mall will be located near to that of Franklin Roosevelt, and you will be able to see both the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials from its location. It is fitting that the nation honor its great Americans with such monuments, but it is interesting to note that of those so honored, Dr. King will be the only man who was neither a president nor a soldier. He was a preacher and a pacifist. He was an agitator. He was accused of being a communist by J. Edgar Hoover who only found evidence of his philandering not his communism. He spoke in a Christian idiom that challenged the nation’s social and ideological norms, championing the redemptive power of suffering in a crassly materialistic culture and calling America to her own best ideals. He loved the nation he evangelized, a lesson for us all. He was a great, a truly great American.