A friend once asked me who the most significant person in the twentieth century was. It was his position that Albert Einstein trumped all others because of his theory on relativity. The applications of Einstein’s theory are breathtaking, and it is quite possible that there would be no modern society as we know if it were not for E=MC2. To a mathematician, the equation has a certain elegance; to an engineer the equation advanced theoretical physics and was the catalyst of many great inventions; to the multinational corporation it permitted its CEO to bark instructions out to his staff over a global network; to the small businessperson it had a trickle-down affect as he/she benefited from the commerce that was created at the top of the economic/business food-chain; to the hard working citizen, though its impact may have been transparent, it opened unprecedented opportunities for employment, leisure and entrepreneurship; and to the couch potato it permitted one to remotely surf through anyone of more than 500 channels over satellite/cable/FIOS television.
For purposes of this article, I’d like to ask/answer the question differently: What was the most significant event of the twentieth century? Notwithstanding the detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki; or sending men to the moon and returning them safely to the earth; or creating a global, electronic network, it is my position that the modern world as we know it was created by the defiance of four spiritual men: Mahatma Gandhi; the Ayatollah Khomeini; Pope John Paul II; and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I say “spiritual men,” not in the sense that these men were inspired by the same spirituality that may drive you or me, but in the sense that they believed that a power beyond their ability, real or perceived, would aid them in reaching their destiny.
Gandhi led the struggle in
Gandhi, the Ayatollah, the Pope and Dr. King are revered in many parts of the world. Gandhi’s birthday, October 2, is commemorated as Gandhi Jayanti, a national holiday in
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., employing Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy, led the Civil Rights Movement in a crusade to break the punishing grip of racism in
“...All we say to
Ironically and perhaps unknowingly, Dr. King preached his own eulogy that night by revealing to his audience that he had seen the promise land:
“...Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord [climax to I’ve Been to the Mountaintop].”
Less than 24 hours later, Dr. King lay in a pool of his own blood.
In an effort to place Dr. King on his proper, historical pedestal, many books have been written about his contributions to society. Ironically, there are factions within the African American community which argue that Dr. King ruined the self sufficiency of the black community, supposedly because integration was the downfall of many black businesses. Once integration took its full stride, many blacks who once shopped at their local African American business establishments began shopping at chain department stores.
History has an inevitable consequence on the direction of civilization, and it is littered with a path of destruction. Perhaps one could argue that one downside of the great successes of the King Years was that small businesses in the black community were no match for the big, box store establishments, and they were forced out of business. This is History…some may say at its worst; but it has an unavoidable outcome when powerful forces begin to coalesce. When the Civil Rights Movement collided with racism and Jim Crow through the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Crow was slain; racism ended up in grave condition and was placed on life support by those whites who continued to clutch onto the discarded and discredited policies of America's racist past; and Civil Rights was left standing, opening opportunities for millions of people of color, not only in America, but around the world.
Dr. King’s work places him in the pantheon of great Americans. And although there will never be an agreement on where he ranks on the all-time list of the great patriots that this great nation has produced, one thing is irrefutable: America has granted Dr. King the highest distinction that any country can convey on a citizen by naming a holiday in recognition of his birth-date; something that has not been granted to any other figure.
Happy Birthday to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.!