“Extremism in the pursuit of liberty is no vice . . . moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” These ennobling words might well be spoken in tribute to the life lived by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a new memorial is dedicated in his honor. They proclaim his belief in the radicalism of the American idea and of the life by which he pursed it so that every human being could live by it.
In these same words, which happen to have been spoken by Sen. Barry Goldwater after his nomination at the 1964 Republican Convention, critics found little but a confirmation of their suspicions of another man then considered a radical. It might have surprised the senator’s detractors to learn that these words were penned by one Karl Hess, who in his long career as a political philosopher, editor, motorcycle racer, tax resister, atheist (he had once been a devout Roman Catholic) and libertarian, had embraced at different times in his life both the Republican right and the New Left. There is, however, the intriguing proposition that the quote can be attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero, the ancient Roman orator, whom no one would particularly accuse of being a libertarian. But does it matter? Does it matter who said these words, if they ring true and resonate in the heart of anyone who loves liberty and justice — as Dr. King so passionately did?
Dr. King himself might as well have spoken the words, for no one can deny that he lived by them. Today, as journalist E.J. Dionne observes, in the somewhat moderated and domesticated representations of this great leader that we have in recent years grown accustomed to, it is easy to forget that King at the time of his ministry was labeled an “extremist” who explicitly called out “moderates” for urging African-Americans to slow down their march to justice, who quite brilliantly used the American creed as a seedbed for searing criticisms of the U.S. as it then existed.
The tendency to hear prophetic voices selectively, as time passes, can diminish their power yet to speak to us. Even Jesus Christ himself has been subjected to any number of (no doubt) well-intentioned but seriously distorting reductions that depict him more like Dr. Phil than Dr. King, a self-help lecturer or a camp counselor — in contrast to those deplored “fire and brimstone” prophets of the Old Testament — instead of the highly impassioned critic of the religious and cultural conventions of his time, which image the Scriptures do not conceal. At the heart of the Gospel proclaimed by Christ, however, was not a desire to destroy the law and the prophets, the foundations of the faith in whose cradle the Word became incarnate, but to re-infuse humanity with the passionate love of the divine breath through which it was created.
Dr. King never strayed from the foundational principles of the American Republic, which, along with his Christian faith, were the moorings of his eminently moral crusade. Indeed, it was the failure of American history to have lived up to its very core values of human equality for almost 200 years that motivated him to fight for the freedom and justice that our founding fathers had proclaimed.
Although he was praised for his oratorical skills and perhaps most remembered for his speeches (“I have a dream”), it was ultimately the witness born by his life and his ability to motivate others to make that dream a reality for which this nation and, indeed, the world is indebted to him. In the end, his life is a testimony to the time-tested phrase: “actions speak louder than words.” The mark of true leadership is not, ultimately, in the ability to stir the hopes and expectations of the masses, but to lead them to accomplish peacefully what no one can do alone.
One need only recall the events of Dr. King’s life that moved history and politics — most of which involved nothing more demonstrative than singing, praying and peaceful public presence from those who believed in the truths he proclaimed and lived by. In the end, it is has been observed, perhaps cynically, that more will be said than done. But in the spirit of hope, the legacy of Dr. King is that, in the end, it matters much less who said what than that what was said was done. Amen!