King reminds us to respect everyone's humanity


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 11:39 p.m.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did incredible things: He led the civil-rights movement, wrote books and gave world-class speeches.

But many schoolchildren can identify with at least two all-too-human qualities of his.

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Institute at Stanford University, said King was a scribbler. A lot of the material the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner penned was handwritten.

King rarely wrote out his sermons, said Carson, who has gone through thousands of King's papers, assembling them in volumes for the public to consume. King also wasn't a good speller, Carson told the Trotter Group of black columnists at Stanford University.

"King, most of all, is a human being," Carson said. "That's the aspect of King that can never be taken away."

Carson described King in ways worth sharing as the nation prepares to celebrate his birthday on Monday. Carson said King not only was a great leader for black America but an outstanding one for white America, too. King was to the United States what Nelson Mandela was to South Africa.

Mandela helped end apartheid in South Africa without the predicted mass bloodshed. King did the same thing in America, helping end the Jim Crow era. "Race riots should have been the norm," Carson said.

King, who had worked in the tobacco fields of Connecticut as a young person, was a complicated man. He preached a "social gospel" engaging Christianity in economic justice. King was an ecumenical religious leader, accepting that "each religion is a path to the truth," Carson said.

"Humanity should come from faith particularly when you link it to power," Carson said of King's logic. "Faith without humanity is dangerous to the entire world."

It's what we are seeing today with so many fundamentalists using religions for power. "The world today is like a room filled with gasoline" and throughout the globe are people with matches, Carson said.

"King was a person, who because of his own questions, was able to understand faith could be a very powerful force for good," Carson said. "As he often put it, 'Faith can be a way out of no way."'

Carson said that even though King was revered worldwide, he often was viewed with ambivalence by blacks because of his nonviolent and nonmaterialistic stands. "King makes a lot of black Americans uncomfortable," Carson said.

"Nonviolence for more black Americans is a very unsettling issue," he said. "We live in a very violent society."

Carson said King also should be credited for the emergence of the religious right. When President Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he reportedly said it would cost the Democratic Party the South for a generation.

White voters moved to the Republican Party. Carson said the November 2006 election showed a possible reversal. For the first time in two generations, many white voters in the South backed liberal and progressive Democratic candidates.

Carson advised teachers in this King holiday period to learn to teach King as he was in reality and not as an innocuous figure. King made the civil-rights and human-rights movement possible, but the work is far from over. People have the power to be a force for good.

"Every government is based on the complicity of its citizens," Carson said. King taught people that they have the ability to resist. Oppression crumbles when people withhold their consent.

It's up to the people not to give their power away.

Lewis W. Diuguid is a member of The Kansas City Star's Editorial Board. Readers may write to him at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or by e-mail at Ldiuguid@kcstar.com.King preached a "social gospel" engaging Christianity in economic justice. King was an ecumenical religious leader, accepting that "each religion is a path to the truth," Clayborne Carson said.

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