In Our View: Influencing Great Leaders

MLK's views about nonviolence, justice are still having a powerful impact

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Although Martin Luther King Jr. never served in a major elected office, the influence of his views about nonviolence and justice is seen today and into eternity upon countless major politicians.Americans pause today to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it is instructive to review two examples of how major political figures of both parties share his views.

We'll begin with this analysis of a Republican presidential candidate:

On June 4, 1957, a speech by King at the University of California at Berkeley certainly would not become as famous as his "I Have a Dream" speech six years later, but he just as eloquently presented a philosophy that would acquire a certain immortality: "Now if moderation means moving on with wise restraint and calm reasonableness, then moderation is a great virtue … ," King noted. "But if moderation means showing up in the move for justice and capitulating to the whims and caprices of the guardians of the deadening status quo, then moderation is a tragic vice, which all men of good will must condemn."

Interestingly, Barry Goldwater expressed more or less that same view seven years later (1964) in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, wisely maintaining that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice … moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."

This and many other close comparisons with the leading orators of our time solidifies the appropriateness of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. His influence has been that profound, that eternal.

Beyond King's influence -- and of lesser importance but still intriguing -- are a few coincidences linking King with modern leaders.

Flash forward to this analysis of a Democratic president, provided by Bob Ray Sanders in a recent column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sanders begins by noting that Barack Obama was 2 years and 24 days old when King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. And, Obama was 6 when King was assassinated in 1968. Thus, Sanders concludes, "the man who would become the first black president of the United States didn't know King like those born a generation earlier."

Time passed, and a link slowly emerged, as Sanders describes: "Despite the gap in their ages and the generational and geographical differences that helped define Obama and King, their legacies are inextricably tied, albeit the president's legacy is still in the making." Indeed, how this president's legacy evolves is unknown, but these two facts are certain:

• As was widely reported four years ago, Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Aug. 28, 2008, occurred on the 45th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.

• Since Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term, presidents have been sworn in on Jan. 20 except for two: Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 and Ronald Reagan in 1985. Their public inaugurations were moved to one day later because Jan. 20 occurred on a Sunday in each of those years.

Now comes the third such rare calendar event. Today brings the public inauguration of the second term of America's first black president. Sanders completes the link: "That's the day the nation has set aside to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. Coincidence or providence?" No one knows which. And it really doesn't matter as far as the chronological intrigue is concerned. It's the two legacies -- one etched indelibly, one evolving -- that matter.