I have yet to see the movie Selma. But my hope, as I see the previews, is that it will present Martin Luther King, Jr. as a man, not simply as an icon. There is a certain tendency in this day and age to see King as a kind of insipid do-gooder, diffusing a general air of benevolence as he invites us to sit together and sing a national round of kumbaya.

Lost in this picture is the idea of man who was great, but like the rest of us, also flawed, also human. And lost in this picture is the fact that King was perhaps the greatest social revolutionary in American history, a man who did what four years of the bloodiest conflict in American history were not able to fully accomplish. In a few short years, he led the movement that dismantled a centuries old formal structure of oppression, evil, and terror, that subjected a whole class of people to a second-class status sanctioned by law. It is no diminution of his accomplishment to say that the legacy of slavery and segregation is still with us, or that racial prejudice is not banished from our midst. Nor would it be fair or accurate to suggest that he stood alone. Unquestionably, however, his life was one of the great watersheds in American history; nothing afterward could ever be quite the same as it was before.

King had the courage to adhere to his principles recognizing that he was pursuing a fatal course. He never gave up on his determination to see the Movement through. He never gave up on his radical determination to make America a more just society. And in keeping with his creed of non-violence and love, he never gave up on people — from the most vile segregationist to the most downtrodden victim to the most haughty politician — King never gave up on the possibility that we can be better than we are.

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© Charles Williamson Day, Jr., 2016. All rights reserved.

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