Monday will mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 31 years since Congress passed, and President Reagan signed, the law setting aside the third Monday in January as a holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. King, and all of those who engaged in the Civil Rights struggle. Martin Luther King has rightly entered the pantheon of American heroes and this weekend will be devoted to his life and legacy, including a nationwide Day of Service.
Many people are better able to tell his story than I can, especially those who worked directly with him and who participated in civil rights actions from marches, sit-ins and voter registration drives. Instead, I’d like to explain how, in a personal way, Dr. King’s legacy lives on today.
Early in the ’80s, I thought of MLK Day as just one more three-day weekend and paid scant attention to who Dr. King was, or what he stood for. I don’t think this attitude is all that surprising for someone who grew up here in San Mateo County. Even now, my town of San Carlos is less than 1 percent black, San Mateo County is 3 percent black, and California as a whole is only 6.6 percent black.
The “out of sight, out of mind” nature of the black population here insulated me from the evils of segregated America and the oppression suffered by those denied education, employment and the right to vote simply because their ancestors hailed from Africa. That same insulation sheltered me from the fact that the black community that did exist in East Palo Alto was the result of racist real estate covenants and “sundown town” police action in Palo Alto and other Peninsula cities.
In the mid-’90s, I moved to my birthplace, Washington, D.C. There, through my church, I encountered some amazing people. These were people who had no reason to befriend me, yet they did. These were people with whom I had almost nothing in common, yet they invited me into their homes and into their lives.
When I visited their homes, I would see in a place of honor pictures of Martin Luther King. It was then that I began to understand the importance of his struggle in a personal way. No longer was Dr. King an abstract figure of a vague dream from years ago. Instead, he was a real person, with a real life, who had real meaning.
The power of his Christian vision of the beloved community is striking. It is a vision, in the words of Kenneth Smith and Ira Zepp, “of a completely integrated society, a community of love and justice wherein brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life ... such a community would be the ideal corporate expression of the Christian faith.”
Dr. King knew that integration meant a change in attitudes. Positive personal and social relationships require more than legislating civil rights. They require a deep understanding of the kingdom of God brought about by the incarnation of Jesus and his radical love for all. Once physical segregation was legally abolished, integration demanded reaching out across psychological barriers of class, education and upbringing.
That’s what my friends did. They reached out across those barriers. They aren’t theologians, or political activists. They are just ordinary people who absorbed, from church and community, the fundamental importance of reconciliation and redemption in one’s life. They understand that forgiveness does more for the forgiver, by lifting a heavy psychological burden, than it does for anyone else. They learned from Dr. King.
Because of Dr. King’s leadership in demanding civil rights for all — built on the foundation of the Declaration of Independence and its expression in the Constitution — and legacy of radical Christian love, I have friends and family I would not otherwise have. Because of Dr. King, I have godsons and goddaughters, nieces and nephews who enrich my life. For that, I am deeply grateful.
But beyond one person’s experience, Dr. King’s life and work has touched millions. And for that, all of us as Americans should be deeply grateful as well.
If you are interested in local events this weekend that commemorate the life of Dr. King, visit mlksmc.com or norcalmlkfoundation.org.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state, and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.