Last weekend, I visited the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington DC. This followed a trip to Anacostia, MD to see Frederick Douglass’ home – who came 100 years before King, and both visits came on the heels of a recent trip to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela lives still. Civil rights have been on my mind.
Civil rights. Two little words for such an enormous concept, such an important idea. The idea that we all need food and water to survive; we all want some voice in how things go in our lives; we all want to LIVE – to express ourselves, to discover, to work, contribute, relate, find meaning and connect. A grand idea, I notice, reduced by these two words to a legal concept – that of rights.
When I entered the MLK memorial, my first sight was King quotations, writ large across granite walls that hug the landscape, the letters of which are made crisp by the play of sun and shadow. What struck me about these words was that King wasn’t really talking about rights. He wasn’t talking about a platform or legal precedent or even a group of people.
He was talking about truth essential to us all – deep truth, as basic as bone.
He said things like:
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
As I moved along the wall, I came upon the monument itself, made of massive granite chunks. One of which has King’s body emerging from its end – like a ship’s figurehead, facing into the wind of the future, eyes wide and standing tall. King’s visage stares across the Tidal Basin toward the Jefferson Memorial, out of a bright whiteness of stone. I wondered at the choice. His face, his lips, his massive hands, holding in place arms folded across his body, all seemed a bit wrong. I longed for the warm tone of his skin; I longed for his open arms, his hands reaching out to us all.
But instead, the memorial casts him in hard lines, imposing, stern, and seemingly miffed at us. Arms crossed as though holding back, keeping his distance. Why? Was this who he was? Or who we need him to be? Is he posed this way to let us know there is more to do? A stern father towering over us with authority and disappointment?
Maybe that is comforting or inspiring to some, but I hoped to look into the countenance of the man representative of the words carved deep into the rock behind him. The words reminding us all that we are one.
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”
It struck me that rights are an unnecessary concern in a world where unconditional love prevails. We need only be concerned with rights when they are in jeopardy or worse, being transgressed. But the entire idea of rights rests on the notion that we are fundamentally different from each other. That some of us are different, and because of that, deserve to be treated differently.
As long as this difference remains the ground we stand on, we will continue to have to fight for equal rights. Whether it’s poor, uneducated, one color or another, large, small, male or female, this set of beliefs or that, across a river or an ocean, these differences appear, in retrospect, so terribly arbitrary and archaic. And yet, we persist in justifying our obsession with difference with whatever current rationale for this group’s inferiority or wrong or lack of some fundamental sameness the rest of us share. Yesterday were those with black skin; today those who love people of the same gender; tomorrow it’s me; the day after it’s you.
When will we begin with the idea that all people, in fact, all life, is made of the same stuff? And the differences so much smaller than the sameness, they are very nearly inconsequential? When will we accept that our focus on difference is our undoing? This is not a political or legal position, although great politicians and lawyers have espoused it. This has been the stuff of spiritual teachers since time immemorial, but more recently has been argued by philosophers and proven by science.
And in this moment, when our lives across the planet are being pushed closer together with globalization and King’s “inescapable network” is the very real internet, it’s time to rethink “protection of rights.” King presaged the way:
“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
These words today seem so simple and right, and even obvious. Maybe that’s the irony of Truth. The bigger it is, the simpler it is in the abstract, but the more challenging, even impossible it seems in practice. So, although Martin’s loving words, from the heart of a deeply spiritual man, are the surround of his memorial, it is King as stark, harsh, massive presence that commands its central position. And isn’t this just exactly our problem? We take what is so tender and lovely – our sameness – and make it so hard and brutal – our fight for right against which we must fight for equal rights.
For me, the real feeling of King’s memorial is evoked not by his massive, stalwart, near-grimacing presence, but rather by the expanse of the space surrounding it. Four acres nestled among walls of such beautiful words, where visiting people look up, out and through a lens, the narrow focus of the mind as it penetrates meaning. They cast their reverent gaze on the man, his idea, and each other. And his legacy is reflected in those faces, laughing, reading, chatting, all the while, perceiving the gift. The gift of what is right. What is true. Against which, all the tyranny and smallness and meanness of spirit, all the torture and brutality and disregard simply look petty.
We think about rights as a way to get to equality – when in fact, our sameness, our fundamental equality, as King would say, is where it all begins.