19 January 2009
Dr. King's Lesson
The "rule of law" is no guarantor of liberty. Americans boast of their Constitution, but it did little to secure the rights of citizenship to black Americans for many years. In some places, for blacks to claim their rights was to put their lives at risk. Hate can make hypocrisy of law. When law becomes a dead letter, or a lie, all we have left is our own courage. We ask how people can be free in places like China or Cuba, and we assume that they can't because there is no "rule of law" in such places. More correctly, there is a "rule of law" on paper, but it's a promise that isn't worth the paper it's written on. So the Constitution must have seemed to African-Americans. To them, and to all Americans, Martin Luther King presented the model of a free man. He understood that the only reliable guarantor of his freedom was his own courage. If he had the courage and thus the freedom to defy power, he was no less free in the most essential sense when they put him in jail. Nor are brave folk in China or Cuba less free because they go to jail. Freedom is not a matter of worrying about consequences. It does not depend on the kind of guarantees promised by the "rule of law." King did what he thought right, fully expecting to go to jail, and probably all along fully expecting to be killed. If you're not willing to do the same and risk the consequences when confronted with wrong, you can have all the rights in the list, but you will not be free, except in the same way a coward is. For teaching that lesson, King is as worthy of a holiday as Washington, if only people will learn it.