Great Stories, Leadership

Time and Tame Lions

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the United States of America. The commemoration of the great non-violent civil rights leader seems especially poignant this year when current politics leave that country seemingly more divided and more dangerous than at any time I can remember.

King’s most famous speech is “I Have A Dream” recorded August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. I’ve read or listened to excerpts from this speech many times but today was the first time I sat down and watched the whole thing.

You should do so too:

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the first 12 minutes of his historic presentation. The focus has always been on the inspiring final parts where Rev. King casts a vision for a more equal, more moral, and more just nation. Those words about his dream and freedom ringing, and being free at last are burned into the culture. As they deserve to be. But prior to that; in the first 2/3 of his comments, the tone is nothing short of revolutionary.

The message is not only aspirational but passionately activistic.

His critiques on segregation policies and racist people are sharp, incisive, and demanding. He calls for nothing less than direct, impatient, and urgent uprising to overthrow the evil of his time. He is calling for a confrontation, albeit a confrontation using the tactics of peace and moral authority in the face of violence and abuse.

Somehow history has softened the speech and ultimately the man. Martin Luther King jr. is seen more for his beautiful ideals than for his demand for immediate action. Raising him to iconic status has been accompanied by dulling the sharp edges of his message. To borrow an image from C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia, we’ve tamed the lion.

That seems to be the way time functions.

When we want to identify a leader as broadly good we do so in part by quietly filing off the most dangerous or demanding parts of their stories. Many would point out that we’ve done the same with Jesus, who was Rev. King’s inspiration. Making a prophet more palatable is a natural process, especially over the course of a few generations. I understand why it happens, and I suppose there are even some benefits to it happening. But I, for one, want to have the courage to see my heroes in their raw and unvarnished reality. I want to face the harshness of their words and hardness of their example and be challenged by them in as much truth as I can find.

Take the 17 minutes today to watch the full video above.

Don’t just settle for the slightly sanitized highlights. Watered down heroes can never inspire wholehearted responses.