As another observance of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday arrives, a new movie, “Selma,” is renewing attention on a pivotal moment in King’s long struggle for civil rights.
Critics have pointed out that “Selma” indulges some poetic license, a common practice when Hollywood distills complicated history into a feature-length drama. Whatever its flaws, “Selma” points to certain realities about King’s life and times that are worth remembering as the nation pauses today to honor his legacy.
The movie’s opening, as King prepares to deliver his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, offers a useful reminder that King and his message extended far beyond the concerns of African-Americans struggling in the United States. King and his message of tolerance and brotherhood belonged to the world, just as the world, in all its complexity and wonder and weakness, informed King’s thinking.
He had studied the broad sweep of international history long enough to know that hatred knew no boundaries on the planet; it existed, sadly enough, in every corner of every community on the globe. But King’s religious faith inspired him to think that love’s reach across the universe was equally broad — and ultimately, more enduring.
About King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, we already know. It’s been quoted so often, especially each January, that schoolchildren might be forgiven for thinking it’s the only speech King ever gave.
But King, a preacher by training and inclination, delivered thousands of other words on the peril and promise of the human condition, and today should be a day to think of those other words, too.
This month, perhaps because of the attacks in Paris that horrified the world but also inspired millions to march in peaceful protest, we’ve been thinking about King’s 1957 speech, “Loving Your Enemies.”
We think of King as a kind of idealist, soaring above the bitter realities of his times, but his 1957 remarks revealed a man who knew that peace and brotherhood aren’t simply achieved by saying a few prayers and wearing a smile. Real love is hard; it stretches us to do things we’d really rather not try. He mentions, in his “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, that he’d tried to preach the same message at least once a year — an acknowledgment that the struggle to love people we don’t care for is never fully resolved.
“Hate for hate,” said King, “only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe.”
The challenges King recognized remain, and there is much work to be done in advancing peace around the world. That’s all the more reason to remember him on this special day.