New York Times du 16 janvier 2006
OFFICIAL celebrations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday turn 20 years old this week.
Like that of Dr. King's late colleague Rosa Parks, the name behind our 10th national holiday carries more resonance than impact - noble, universal, yet bounded by race and time. The annual King event draws tributes to the end of legal segregation, reprises of landmark oratory and varied appraisals of problems for minorities. Yet despite our high-stakes national commitment to advance free government around the world, we consistently marginalize or ignore Dr. King's commitment to the core values of democracy.
His own words present a vast and urgent landscape for freedom. "No American is without responsibility," Dr. King declared only hours after the 1965 "Bloody Sunday" repulse of voting rights marchers in Selma, Ala. "All are involved in the sorrow that rises from Selma to contaminate every crevice of our national life," he added. "The struggle in Selma is for the survival of democracy everywhere in our land."
His public appeal gathered an overnight host from many states behind a blockaded vigil. When white supremacists beat one volunteer to death with impunity, Dr. King responded with prophetic witness against the grain of violence. "Out of the wombs of a frail world," he assured mourners, "new systems of equality and justice are being born."
Selma released waves of political energy from the human nucleus of freedom. Ordinary citizens ventured across cultural barriers, aroused a transnational conscience and engaged all three branches of government. After the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King claimed that the distinctive methods of sharecroppers and students had revived nothing less than the visionary heritage of the American Revolution. "The stirring lesson of this age is that mass nonviolent direct action is not a peculiar device for Negro agitation," he told the Synagogue Council of America. "Rather it is a historically validated method for defending freedom and democracy, and for enlarging these values for the benefit of the whole society."
This effusive axiom went unnoticed, but the blessings of freedom did ripple far beyond the black victims of caste. As Dr. King predicted, the civil rights movement liberated segregationists themselves. The integrity of law enforcement rose with a stark decline in racial terror. The Atlanta Braves joined the first professional sports teams to spring up at integrated stadiums, and business radiated Sun Belt growth into a region of historic poverty. In elections, new black voters generated the 20th century's first two-party competition to displace the ossified regimes of white supremacy. The stigma of segregation no longer curtailed a Southerner's chances for high national office, and fresh candidates rose swiftly to leadership in both national parties.
Parallel tides opened doors for the first female students at some universities and most private colleges, then the military academies. In 1972, civil rights agitation over doctrines of equal souls produced the first public ordination of a female rabbi in the United States, and the Episcopal Church soon introduced female clergy members in spite of schismatic revolts to preserve religious authority for men. Pauli Murray, a lawyer who was one of the pioneer priests, had pursued a legal appeal that in 1966 overturned several state laws flatly prohibiting jury service by women. "The principle announced seems so obvious today," Dr. Murray would write in a memoir, "that it is difficult to remember the dramatic break the court was making."
Overseas, as an amalgam of forces suddenly dissolved the Soviet empire atop its mountain of nuclear weapons, Dr. King's message echoed in the strains of "We Shall Overcome" heard along the Berlin Wall and the streets of Prague. Likewise, South African apartheid melted without the long-dreaded racial Armageddon, on miraculous healing words from a former prisoner, Nelson Mandela. Students shocked the world from Tiananmen Square with nonviolent demonstrations modeled on American sit-ins, planting seeds of democracy within the authoritarian shell of Chinese Communism.
These and other sweeping trends from the civil rights era have transformed daily life in many countries, and now their benefit is scarcely contested. Yet the political discourse behind them is atrophied. Public service has fallen into sad disrepute. Spitballs pass for debate. Comedians write the best-selling books on civics. Dr. King's ideas are not so much rebutted as cordoned off or begrudged, and for two generations his voice of anguished hope has given way to a dominant slogan that government itself is bad.
Above all, no one speaks for nonviolence. Indeed, the most powerful discipline from the freedom movement was the first to be ridiculed across the political spectrum. "A hundred political commentators have interred nonviolence into a premature grave," Dr. King complained after Selma. The concept seemed alien and unmanly. It came to embarrass many civil rights veterans themselves, even though nonviolence lies at the heart of democracy.
Every ballot - the most basic element of free government - is by definition a piece of nonviolence, symbolizing hard-won or hopeful consent to raise politics above anarchy and war. The boldest principles of democratic character undergird the civil rights movement's nonviolent training. James Madison, arguing to ratify the Constitution in 1788, summoned "every votary of freedom to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government," and he added that no form of government can secure liberty "without virtue in the people."
By steeling themselves to endure blows without retaliation, and remaining steadfastly open to civil contact with their oppressors, civil rights demonstrators offered shining examples of the revolutionary balance that launched the American system: self-government and public trust. All the rest is careful adjustment.
Like Madison, the marchers from Selma turned rulers and subjects into fellow citizens. A largely invisible people offered leadership in the role of modern founders. For an incandescent decade, from 1955 to 1965, the heirs of slavery lifted the whole world toward freedom.
Weariness and war intruded. In the White House, President Lyndon Johnson wrestled the political subtleties of sending soldiers to guarantee liberty at home. "Troops leave a bitter taste in the mouths of all the people," cautioned Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The president moaned simultaneously over predictions of bloody stalemate if he sent troops to Vietnam, saying the prospect "makes the chills run up my back," but he succumbed to schoolyard politics. The American people, he feared, "will forgive you for everything except being weak."
Lamenting religious leaders who accommodated the war, Dr. King defended nonviolence on two fronts. "Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?" he asked. "What then can I say to the Vietcong, or to Castro, or to Mao...? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?" In politics, Dr. King endorsed a strategic alternative to violence. "We will stop communism by letting the world know that democracy is a better government than any other government," he told his congregation, "and by making justice a reality for all of God's children."
Pressures intensified within Dr. King's own movement. To battered young colleagues who wondered why nonviolence was consigned mostly to black people, while others admired James Bond, he could only commend the burden as a redemptive sacrifice. Change was slow, however, for a land still dotted with lynching, and frustration turned to rebellion as the war in Vietnam hardened the political climate. When offered incendiary but fleeting fame in 1966, the leaders of various black power movements repudiated nonviolence along with the vote itself, which they had given so much to win.
Meanwhile, Lyndon Johnson steadily lost his presidency at home before he could forge any political order in Vietnam. Although casualty figures confirmed the heavy advantage of American arms, Johnson fell victim to a historical paradox evolving since the age of Napoleon: modern warfare destroys more but governs less - one reason military commanders seem, in my limited experience, more skeptical than civilians about the political use of lethal force.
Dr. King grew ever more lonely in conviction about the gateway to constructive politics. "I'm committed to nonviolence absolutely," he wrote. "I'm just not going to kill anybody, whether it's in Vietnam or here." When bristling discouragement invaded his own staff, he exhorted them to rise above fear and hatred alike. "We must not be intimidated by those who are laughing at nonviolence now," he told them on his last birthday.
His oratory fused the political promise of equal votes with the spiritual doctrine of equal souls. He planted one foot in American heritage, the other in scripture, and both in nonviolence. "I say to you that our goal is freedom," he said in his last Sunday sermon. "And I believe we're going to get there because, however much she strays from it, the goal of America is freedom."
Only hours before his death, Dr. King startled an aide with a balmy aside from his unpopular movement to uplift the poor. "In our next campaign," he remarked, "we have to institutionalize nonviolence and take it international."
The nation would do well to incorporate this goal into our mission abroad, reinforcing the place of nonviolence among the fundamentals of democracy, along with equal citizenship, self-government and accountable public trust. We could also restore Dr. King's role in the continuing story of freedom to its rightful prominence, emphasizing that the best way to safeguard democracy is to practice it. And we must recognize that the accepted tradeoff between freedom and security is misguided, because our values are the essence of our strength. If dungeons, brute force and arbitrary rule were the keys to real power, Saudi Arabia would be a model for the future instead of the past.
Gunfire took Dr. King's life, but we determine his legacy. This holiday, let that inspiration remain our patriotic challenge.
 Taylor Branch is the author, most recently, of"At Canaan's Edge," the third volume of his biography of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company