Clyburn Op-Ed Reflection on Dr. King's Life and Legacy

Jan 17, 2011 Issues: Congressional Issues

These are sober days in America, and yet fortuitously, they coincide with our national celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In times like these, I often turn to Dr. King’s writings. They remind me that we have overcome some rather difficult events in our nation’s history. In the days following the horrific shootings in Arizona, I have reread a few of some of Dr. King’s writings and reflected upon some of my own experiences to find a deeper understanding and context within which to view these tragic events.

The context in which one views this challenging episode depends largely on one’s life experiences. These are mine — I am 70 years old, born in segregated Sumter, South Carolina. I attended all-black schools and was a civil rights activist as a student on the campus of South Carolina State College. I know what it is to attempt to exercise my First Amendment rights and come face to face with someone I knew wanted to harm me physically.

I have been asked often in recent days if the current public discourse is the worst I have ever seen. In my experience, the answer is no. For those of us who lived through the 1960s, we have poignant memories of the dark days when President Kennedy, Dr. King and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated. We lived through bombings, lynchings, and mobs spewing such venomous hate that we all wondered how we would overcome. But we did. We overcame with Dr. King’s admonition that our protests must remain nonviolent. In his words, “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.” And even more importantly, in my opinion, you refuse to allow his hate to diminish you.

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In recent years, we have heard hateful speech become commonplace in our public discourse. The tone of our political rhetoric has become angry and personal. It has come from people of all walks of life — on the left, on the right, and over the airwaves — from those who know that shock and slander sells. Everybody seems to be asking, how can we overcome these difficult days? Dr. King would answer eloquently that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

These are times of challenge and controversy. Dr. King would have us “use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.” To do right is to work together to create a “more perfect union.” That means finding common ground, being willing to compromise, to consider differing opinions. I have always said that if the difference between me and my opponent is five steps, I don’t mind taking three of them. This country’s beloved Constitution was adopted only after reaching the Great Compromise.

There is an old folk song adopted as an anthem of the civil rights movement that teaches us to keep our “eyes on the prize.” Our prize is to emerge from these difficult days stronger and more unified. Our nation’s darkest days were made that much harder by the divisions that separated us. Our most glorious moments were achieved when we came together in a common cause. We must renew that spirit of unity and embrace policies and procedures that embody Dr. King’s admonition that “the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.” All of us sometimes fall short of these expectations. But as we remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and reflect on the events of recent days, let us take these lessons to heart and keep in mind that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere