The example of a great man

Sunday, January 9, 2011

I grew up in Pittsburgh, where people like to boast that they were present when Bill Mazeroski hit his walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series to beat the heavily favored Yankees. If everyone who says he was there actually was in attendance, the ballpark must have held several million people that day.

Why do people make up such stories out of whole cloth? Perhaps because they can. Unless you insist on seeing a ticket stub -- and who keeps those? -- there's no way to prove who attended. Crafting a false tale about being there gives a person, I suppose, a sense of importance.

While I was in seminary, I heard many of my fellow students claim to have marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in places like Selma, Ala., and Memphis, Tenn. I did not believe most of these boasts, in part because I recall my Pittsburgh roots and the oft-repeated claim to have personally witnessed Maz's round-tripper. Also, I disbelieve because I can do math. I can remember a few students who wouldn't have been born before King died. Again, why such mendacity? No secret. Being able to associate yourself with one of the most significant figures of the last half of the 20th century is irresistible.

I didn't march with King, but I wish I had. He is the only religious leader to have a federal holiday named for him. The next commemoration of his birthday will be Jan. 17. He was such a young man, barely 26, when he took on the responsibility of leading the ultimately successful and yearlong Montgomery Bus Boycott. He was thrust into the spotlight, and his Baptist congregation gave him all the time he required to become the pre-eminent national voice for civil rights. His house was firebombed. He was stabbed and nearly fatally wounded at a book signing. He was arrested again and again. In all of this, King remained faithful to the vision of Mohandas Gandhi and preached a message of nonviolent resistance.

Some time ago, I was attending a conference in Memphis, the city in which he was killed in 1968, and I found myself reading an article his widow, Coretta Scott King, once wrote for Reader's Digest. In it, she admitted that she expected her husband would lose his life. It must have been agonizing to realize that your spouse's vital and important work would end suddenly.

Above all, I admire King's intelligence. His writings, particularly the "Letter From the Birmingham Jail," are absolutely first-rate. The Birmingham letter is all the more remarkable because most of it was written in the margins of newspapers, the only paper he had available. The clarity of his mind, the cogency of his arguments and the restraint of his prose are all deserving of admiration. He chastises the "white moderate" for being blind to the predicament of blacks in the South. They had it coming. Never once does he resort to name-calling. He simply indicts Birmingham's Caucasian clergymen for their words and patiently shows them how they were dead wrong.

No, Martin Luther King Jr. was not a saint. He was a man. But he was a man on whom greatness was thrust and who assumed the mantle of leadership boldly and with remarkable courage.

In Cape Girardeau, as in so many communities in America, there will be events staged to keep alive King's voice and his dream -- a dream so eloquently stated in Washington, D.C., on a late summer day in 1963. I wish I could say I had been in his presence; if I actually had been, I would probably tell everybody I met. We have not seen his like since -- and probably never will.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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