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One of the things they teach in ROTC is that you can't lead from behind. No matter what the diplomats might tell you. An officer can't point to the objective and push his men to it. He has to pull them. From the front. He might not take point on patrol, but he's within whispering distance. That is, if he's a good soldier himself.

There are many kinds of soldiers. Some might not spit-shine boots, but they have a uniform just the same. One with a tie and tie-clip. And a white shirt with a black belt. And a Bible. Don't forget the Bible.

The founders of the Civil Rights movement in this country had to have a leader, too. And he had his own cadence. And the troops sounded off as they marched. His white detractors would call him an Outside Agitator. His black detractors, who didn't think much of his non-violent ways, would call him De Lawd. But Martin Luther King Jr. knew he had to lead his troops from the front. Which is why he was leading the marches in so many photographs. And which is why he was assassintated.

There was something about Martin Luther King Jr. that grabbed the observer. By the hand, or by the hair. We suspect it was because he was a preacher (and, boy, could he preach). But we also suspicion that the times, they were a-changin', and somebody at that particular time had to walk out front. MLK could do that. And did.

After World War II, after black men had gone to war to free other people around the globe, they came home to the same old Jim Crow. In a 2006 book by Jason Sokol, There Goes My Everything, this passage still sticks in the mind:

American soldier Dempsey Travis, stationed stateside in 1943, "had been put in charge of a troop movement on its way to Camp Lee, in Richmond, Virginia. It was the first time Travis, a Chicago native, had witnessed the life of the South. Some sights singed his northern eyes. German POWs rode in the front of the city's streetcars, blacks in the back."

That's right. Black veterans came home to these shores and still had to ride in the back of streetcars and buses, while white Germans--prisoners of war--rode in front. That says a lot about the times Martin Luther King walked in, and nothing good.

Who, as a people, would put up with such things? And we didn't. (Eventually.) But there had to be somebody, or many somebodies, to lead. Call them founding fathers of the civil rights movement. And there had to be a Jefferson in the mix, too, the writer.

Take another look at "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," maybe the finest among American letters that isn't a part of our government's founding documents. Which we are tempted to print here today in its entirety, and let stand. If that letter isn't taught in American schools this very day, in either history or literature classes, shame on us all once again.

A body can't read that letter, that plea to white clergymen, and still come away thinking that Martin Luther King was just a two-dimensional poster. Or, maybe worse, a three-dimensional statue, such as that awful memorial in Washington, D.C., the one in which he hovers over people like a stern taskmaster, arms folded in anger or maybe intimidation. No, to read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is to realize that Dr. King was a living presence, a man, rather than just an influence and only an influence.

That is something Martin Luther King Jr. has in common with other American icons. Their birthdays may be proclaimed official holidays, and their words rolled out for decorative purposes, but what they stood for may be only assumed, not debated and therefore not understood. Can MLK have joined the other Founding Fathers from the 18th Century inasmuch as they are studied, but not known? Can we simply put them back on the shelf after their birthdays have come and gone?

What a strange, sad destiny for a leader whose greatness was found specifically in moving people. And if he hadn't moved people, if he'd just got along better, if he'd just ignored injustice, he might even be alive today. He'd be an old man, but he might be alive. Today would have marked his 91st birthday. But he has been dead longer than he ever was alive.

THAT'S the thing about humans. We kill our prophets. No matter the century.

Thank heaven, we can't kill what they tell us. Their words will echo. Their work will continue. And Martin Luther King's last speech still speaks to America.

We wish the Reverend would have dodged that bullet, and the other bullets that would surely have followed. We could use him today.

We'd like to think that, after the buses and restaurants and hotels and schools and statehouses were integrated, Martin Luther King Jr. would have kept on keeping on. That he would have chided the race hustlers in his camp and moved to new challenges. Like, say, reforming education. Challenging the prison system. Lifting up black families. Encouraging kids to remain in school and off the streets.

We'd like to think that, once the official and state-sanctioned kind of discrimination ended, Dr. King would've turned his attention to the next dragons clawing at Black America. And not just Black America. For there are plenty of white kids dropping out of school, plenty of opioid troubles in rural America, plenty of poor families falling apart. And isn't this day, maybe of all days, in which we should avoid the word Them, but concentrate on Us?

Some of these topics remain troublesome. Or at least uncomfortable to discuss. But we get the feeling that Dr. King would have discussed them just the same. In front of a microphone. With a multitude listening to his words and cadences. After all, he had a way of making all of us uncomfortable, which is what telling the truth will do.

This country's educational establishment, the one that can't think of any better solution to our problems than tossing more money at them, could use a Martin Luther King to give 'em what-fer. So could we all.

The nation lost Martin Luther King Jr. a half-century ago. But we didn't lose his words, his vision, his call to action. Strangely enough, we all have been granted his dearest wish: to live in the present, in this place, and fight for the right, as Lincoln said, as God gives us to see the right. Like Dr. King, let's seize the moment and make a difference.

Today, children will hear lessons and read notes about Martin Luther King in their classrooms. As far as changing the world for the better, the classroom is a great place to start.

Editorial on 01/14/2020

Print Headline: Leading from the front


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