MLK’s Photographer Remembers
Photos and personal recollections
There aren’t many unifying forces in American politics anymore. In an age where statues of heroes like George Washington and even Abraham Lincoln are torn down, few historical figures have escaped the self-righteous indignation of the Great Awokening.
Fortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy remains one of the few still respected by Americans across the political divide. And today, his birthday, is an opportune time to reflect on what makes his legacy so unique.
It wasn’t just Dr. King’s bravery and incredible leadership during one of America’s darkest periods. It was that he always kept his focus on the right enemy.
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That enemy was neither the Republican nor Democrat party. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find an example of Dr. King invoking partisan terms in his speeches or sermons. Even more astounding, he never made White people his enemy or demonized the police force in its entirety – even after they brutally attacked him and others with billy clubs and water hoses.
Dr. King’s enemy was hate. And as a young Black husband and father, I couldn’t be more thankful. Today my family and I enjoy the fruits of a better America, and it’s because of his sacrifice.
As he famously declared, ”Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Dr. King dedicated his life to fighting against hate in all forms. He stood up to the hatred expressed in Jim Crow laws, which intentionally robbed Blacks of the American dream. He fought against hate embedded in policies that denied the humanity of poor and working-class Americans. He even advocated against hate expressed in the Black nationalist movement of his day, as he wrote in his ”Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:
“The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various Black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation … It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the White man is an incurable devil.”
Much to the dismay of those who seek to divide us, the lines of good and evil do not fit neatly into our political spectrum.
Dr. King’s legacy teaches us that no single political movement, national institution or public figure can claim a monopoly on hate. It can rear its ugly head anywhere.
Much to the dismay of those who seek to divide us, the lines of good and evil do not fit neatly into our political spectrum. Hate knows no ideological lines. In fact, it metastasizes precisely when we are deceived into thinking that all our political battles are boiled down to “us” versus “them.”
One of the primary roadblocks to unifying the country today is that both sides are so certain of their moral superiority that any expressions of hate within their own movement is always justified or excused in some way.
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Many on the Left are so confident that because they inserted the word “justice” after each of their party platforms, their abject hatred for the 75 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump is somehow acceptable.
And many on the Right are so sure of the purity of their movement that the hateful attack on the Capitol can only be attributed to Antifa. Both are wrong.
Our country will only move forward when we acknowledge that all of us are vulnerable to being consumed by hate – especially when we engage with people who look or think differently than ourselves. But our ideological enemies aren’t worth the destruction that hate imposes on the human heart.
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To be sure, rejecting hate doesn’t mean that we stay quiet and accept the status quo. And no, we ought not pretend that the Biden administration’s calls for “national healing” and “unity” will magically assuage our ideological differences. If you aren’t angry about what’s happening to our country, you should be. But we can’t let our anger ferment into hate.
Dr. King could have chosen the easy way out. He could have reduced the entirety of the civil rights movement to Whites vs. Blacks. He could have played the common political game of making his movement a choice between the Right or the Left. Instead, he took the harder path of challenging hate from every direction.
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