Today, the United States remembers and reflects on the meaning of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, the rhetorical giant who mesmerized his audiences in churches around the world, and in streets across the south and especially on the Mall in Washington D.C. with his "I have a dream speech!"
It was King's capacity to both hold an audience in the palm of his metaphoric hand and lift their spirits and imaginations and aspirations to the "mountaintops" with his elevated language, his mountaintop perspective, ("I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land"....) that gave him a Moses-like position of leadership among the blacks in America from the Egypt of their segregated toilets and water fountains to their back seats on public buses, to the closed doors to the halls of academia, preserved as they were for "whites only"...lest the black folk become too "uppity" and take over the society and the culture and the political life of the nation.
King marched, he went to prison, he wrote letters from his prison cell, he met with presidents in the Oval Office and he travelled the world as an ambassador of freedom and a prosecutor of the establishment that stood in the way of that river of hope and freedom.
His legacy, in part, is certainly the first black president, but there still remains much work to do on the civil rights file, beset as it is by millions of underemployed, and undereducated and hopeless black men and women who have yet to find their equal opportunity in the land of unlimited opportunity, self-proclaimed.
King was stalked by Herbet Hoover, chief of the FBI, who allegedly compiled a file of his indiscretions of infidelity, so anxious was the establishment of the potential of his political power. He strode the political and cultural streets of America much like a colossus, like nothing we have ever seen in Canada.
But then, Canada is not a country given to putting people, anyone, on a pedestal, or of making any public figure, no matter the cause for which that public person is fighting, into a "star" as is the penchant south of the border.
Are the lives of U.S. blacks better because of Dr. Martin Luther King? Clearly, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 moved the pendulum considerably toward greater equality, the right to vote and the respect of the official nation for black people.
However, there is so much more work to do, among the many black city centres across the United States. While the black communities have their athletic stars to watch and to admire and to emulate, their numbers are miniscule compared with the millions who work for a pittance, and live on a shoestring, or who have simply given up on their potential to achieve the great "American Dream". For many blacks, it is still completely out of reach, and, were Dr. King to return, there is no doubt he would be appalled at the income, employment and hope disparities between the rich who have become even exponentially richer since his death by gunfire and would, undoubtedly, immediately launch another of his marches to level the playing field by eliminating poverty, the core of his belief in bringing about racial integration and harmony.
The world is both grateful for his contribution, sizeable as it is and saddened that his efforts were so limited by both his early demise and his limited playing field, limited by the fears of his fellow countrymen and women, who resisted then and do even more today, substantive changes in the income, employment and opportunity gap that confronts all who observe the strengths and the black holes of U.S.culture and history.