Monday, January 18, 2010

Jim is observing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. His tribute to Ted Sizer, "Opening the Academy," a revised and extended version of a piece originally published on this blog, has just been published at Common-Place, an online history magazine.

Jim's current reading, which he'll revi
ew shortly, is called Emancipation, which deals with the freedom struggle of a different group of people than African Americans, as revealed in its subtitle: "How Liberating Europe's Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance." With its slightly offbeat focus on the nineteenth century, the book, by NPR reporter Michael Goldfarb, usefully allows us to reframe Jewish history as well as to consider the similarities and differences in experiences of oppression in world civilizations.

Martin Luther King would have turned 81 years old on January 15 -- which is to say that he could very likely still have been among us if his life had not been stolen by an assassin's bullet. In looking back over his writings recently, this passage from his 1958 book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, suggests only one way how King's life and work would continue to resonate down to our time:

History has thrust down upon our generation an indescribably important destiny -- to complete a process of democratization which our nation has too long developed too slowly, but which is our most important powerful weapon for world respect and emulation. How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our moral health as individuals, our cultural health as a region, our political health as a nation, and our prestige as a leader of the free world. The future of America is bound up with the solution of the present crisis. The shape of the world today does not permit the luxury of a faltering democracy.

The poignancy of this passage in 2010 lies in just how remote a prospect completing a process of democratization appears to be, along with how remote a prospect world respect and emulation seems to be. Awash in indulgence of many kinds (especially financial), we are right smack in the middle of permitting ourselves the luxury of faltering. Of course, the odds of overcoming bad national habits seemed pretty long in 1958, too, which is precisely why we hold Dr. King and his followers in such high esteem: they made hope seem credible. The sense of power, prestige, and capacity for reform the United States enjoyed a half-century ago is likely gone forever. Let us pray that we may yet redeem at least some of the promise of American life and achieve a just and lasting piece among ourselves and all nations.