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American dreams: The legacy of MLK

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jacob Barreiro
  • 19th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Born into an inconspicuous family on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Ga., few would have predicted that Martin Luther King Jr. would go on to become one of the most recognized icons in American history. Yet little of what King is remembered for was inconspicuous, from when he was a 13-year-old skeptic in Sunday school, to earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology at the age of 19, to his time as a minister in his 20s delivering vociferous sermons, to his emergence as a key leader of the civil rights movement that swept across the country in the 50s and 60s, to him becoming the youngest Noble Peace Prize recipient in 1964, and up to his inglorious assassination on April 4, 1968, King lived an extroverted and extraordinary life.

Not to say that all of King's actions we're inconspicuous in a good way. He was the subject of wiretapping from the Federal Bureau of Investigation for alleged socialist activity, he has been accused of plagiarizing his doctoral thesis, and many other people and organizations, including close friend Ralph David Abernathy, have written about King's life-long struggle with substance abuse and infidelity. Regardless, through all the allegations of moral turpitude, what stands firm about King's legacy is the affirmation of human and American values he pursued. Values like endurance, moral courage and a desire for equality and justice embodied his life-long work.

In this excerpt from King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written to his fellow clergymen who criticized him for making "unwise and untimely" protests in Birmingham that lead to his arrest, King defends his actions as morally right, if unpopular. He was right, and not only was it morally correct, it was morally courageous. The letter is one of the most widely read of King's writings and possesses the same theme of the indomitable human and American spirit present in other imperishable work's like Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

"I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. 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 anywhere within its bounds."

It was this desire to achieve equality and eliminate outsiders that drove King to defy his fellow clergy's advice and continue to organize non-violent protests. In some places the protest we're more effective than others, but through it all King became an icon of the civil rights movement and has taken a place as one of the most recognizable American names in history. His birthday isn't just recognized as a federal holiday for nominal reasons, his accomplishments actually mean something.

In today's America, particularly in the armed services it's easy to take for granted that we're a "melting pot," and comprised of people with diverse ethnicities, races and cultures united in a common cause. However, we would do a disservice to our distinguished ancestors if we didn't pay homage toward the Americans who had the moral courage, if not always moral perfection, and longsuffering fortitude, and who made living in a diverse country with ample opportunities for all people alike possible.

It was conspicuous behavior that made King so beloved by his supporters and so derided by his detractors. Yet it wasn't his oratory skills or eloquent verbiage that made him a great American, it was the action of pursuing and achieving equality, in the face of adversity. Because of men like King we can live, and serve, in a diverse Air Force today, and be proud of it.