Martin Luther King and My America

In the American imagination it has almost become trite to say that one admires Martin Luther King Jr. – it’s like loving Mozart or Shakespeare (or, if you share my Bengali-Indian heritage, Rabindranath Tagore) – it goes without saying and is almost second-nature and ceases to feel significant or impressive.

But listen again, and you’ll remember why.

I read Martin Luther King’s Letter From Birmingham Jail when I was a kid. I think it was an anniversary of his assassination. I read it in a book of his writings my Dad gave me. At the time, I had been reading the history of the American Revolution and the Constitution, so, unsurprisingly, one of the themes that stuck with me was King’s characterization of the civil rights movement and its aim, as not so much a revolution as the fulfillment of the American promise.

On the one hand he pointed out that “abused and scorned though we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny. Before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth, we were here. Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here. For more than two centuries our forebears labored in this country without wages; they made cotton king; they built the homes of their masters while suffering gross injustice and shameful humiliation, and yet out of a bottomless vitality they continued to thrive and develop.”

Yet he also wrote, “when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters, they were …bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

The destinies are “tied up” together with America, not just because of historical circumstance, but because it had been the American values — and mechanism for implementing those values, set up in its founding documents by people who took freedom and equality seriously in principle, however imperfectly they practiced it — that presented the greatest chance of overcoming the original wrongs. Overcoming, it’s important to note, is not the same as avenging.

As a kid I was enthralled by the American promise, while acutely aware that many Americans – perhaps most – didn’t even consider me a “real” American, what with my brown skin and my accented parents. I was the kid whom everyone asked “where are you from?” even though I was born five miles away in the George Washington University Hospital in the nation’s capital. I was the kid who was assumed, whenever I had an unusual idea (and I had plenty), to be speaking, not from my own individual imagination, but from an alien cultural source. I was the kid whose teacher responded, when I told her how moved I was with Dr. King’s writing, “yes, he’s very much like Mahatma Gandhi in your country. In fact, did you know he was inspired by Gandhi? I can give you a bibliography of his writings about Gandhi if you want.”

I know lots of people who responded that way to me, usually without consciously thinking about it. I’ve met people like that all my life. Yet, I loved America. I love it still. I love being an American and what that means at its core. Whatever others may think, I know “America” is mine. Because I know history is not inherited piecemeal by genetic lineage. I know that I am heir to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Walt Whitman and Emma Lazarus and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King. Their legacy is mine because I have chosen it.

And that’s what America is. It is a choice. It is a legacy of choice. America is the one place in the world where it is taken for granted that you can belong here by choice, not just birth. At least this is the one place where the opposite proposition is the controversial one.

Martin Luther King reminded me that there are those who have a heritage of things much, much worse than my mild cultural identity crisis. People who have strong and righteous historical reasons to reject America, or even hate it. But even they love the promise of America. In fact, they root their struggle in that promise. They embrace the “America” we set out to become and are always in the process of becoming.

When people flex their muscles in a show of “American” patriotism that reduces us to parochial idiosyncrasies and perhaps narrow religious or social preferences, I remind myself, that’s not “America” any more than my elbow (or the callus on my heel) is “Koli Mitra.”

For all the grievous wrongs we may be guilty of as a nation, we are also the nation founded in the purest of struggles to overcome those elements in our nature that commit those wrongs.

Martin Luther King taught me that.

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