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King

01/30/02 12:00AM By David Moats

I began to wonder last week why the speeches of Martin Luther King invariably reduce me to tears.

Still.

After all these years.

The King holiday was last week, and some of his speeches found their way to NPR, and so there I was, driving through Brandon on Monday morning with tears streaming down my cheeks.

There is something in King's voice that speaks even more eloquently than his words, something profound about the human condition, something that touches us at an deep emotional level.

King's oratory came out of the black church, and he brings a certain elevated style to his speeches. But there are a lot of powerful black preachers. Few reach that deep level of emotional truth.

I think King's ringing words rest on a foundation that we all recognize as true. It's that there is a good, decent, loving core inside each of us. It's who we are. And this good decent person deserves to be treated with respect. It's really very simple. But in King's day it was a radical assertion. His speeches are powerful because his faith in this assertion was like a rock. Everything grew out of that faith.

And so he could talk about the murders and the beatings and the jailings that Americans were suffering, and his rock-solid faith in human goodness made even death seem transitory and ephemeral. King's ego seldom entered into his speeches. It was as if he had already decided to sacrifice his life, and nothing could shake him.

This faith gave his speeches a certain transcendence, allowing them to touch, in a non-verbal way, our own deepest feelings.

It's stunning to realize that King was in his 30s during the 1960s, and he was only 39 when he died. And yet his speeches are not like the brash speeches of a young man. Nor are they muted and considered like the speeches of an old man. They seem ageless and universal.

King is a reminder that American culture is neither white alone nor black alone. His message transcends that divide in the same way that jazz music does. Race tends to evaporate among serious jazz musicians, even though they are playing music with African roots. It's the music that's important. In the same way King's message is about more than race. With King it's the bond of love and respect among all people that's important. That someone can stand up and say such a thing, while the police dogs are waiting outside and the cops are limbering up their billy clubs, accounts for the power of his speeches.

A few days ago, I happened to see a paper my daughter had written for one of her college classes. In it she quoted King's letter from the Birmingham jail. "The means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek," King wrote.

That King's words have become the substance of the history and ethics my daughter is studying at college is inspiring in itself. When I was in college, King was the subject of FBI harassment and blackmail. Now my daughter has written that "by advocating and practicing non-violence, King showed the love for his enemies that he wished his enemies would have for him."

It's enough to bring a tear to your eye.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

--David Moats is the Editorial Page Editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing.
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