On this day, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the will be many an unfortunate attempt to turn Dr. King into something or someone he is not, or to claim a reading of his legacy as reality where it it lies far from actual fact. This is nothing new; it is an extension of the need of some in this society -- read, Caucasians -- to put their imprimatur on something.
While I, as a Caucasian male, may strive to interpret Reverend King's dream in terms that match my world view, and take from his words the motivation to create the world he envisaged, it is beyond my purview to interpret the events and happenstance of his life beyond my limited understanding of it. I was not a black person living under the thumb of Jim Crow laws in the South of the 1950' and 1960's. I was not subject to depredation and degradation of white Americans seeking to enforce an ignorant and bigoted view of the world. I certainly did not have to fear for my life simply walking down a street or staying at a motel.
Flash forward to the 21st Century and I still have no reason to fear. My privilege -- though I am not desirous of it nor wish to be party it -- still shields me, for fifty years is not enough time for centuries of inequity to be so simply erased, even by the powerful and righteous words of one black man. Though I strive to treat others as the human beings they are, though I work to eliminate the prejudices that society has attempted to build into me, though I try and live my life as an honest a decent man, I am no more subject to the vicissitudes of my race than any before me. I may live in poverty, I may lose my job, I may be required to make sacrifices to keep my family safe and warm, but no matter how badly my life may go, I will not have the added burden of fighting against stereotypical and bigoted behavior.
As such, while I may promote and hope to encourage the vision of a world that Dr. King revealed to me and others through his actions and words, I have no greater claim to know exactly what he went through to reach the point of that vision, nor can I truly understand the forces that shaped that vision for him. I cannot and should not assume that I can read the history of black Americans at that time and be able to fully commiserate with them in their misery and fear, no matter how palpable it may feel to me.
The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is not in the events themselves, but what caused the events to come to be and how the man responded to them, and how he encouraged others to respond to them. If I wish to be true to his legacy, it us up to me not to impose my will upon it, but to stop, listen, and learn. In that way, I can do my part to bring Dr. King's dream to fruition.