President Dobkin's Remarks for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day 2021

Jan. 18, 2021

In most years, the speeches and rallies in commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. are fairly predictable. We run through lists of popular quotes, evoke memories of famous speeches, and celebrate his considerable impact and vision. These are all important things to do. We may gain comfort in promoting nonviolence, inspiration in considering racial justice, and perhaps even nostalgia in hearing his “I Have a Dream Speech.” At its best, Martin Luther King Day includes identification of persistent inequities, inspiration for communities dedicated to dismantling systemic injustices, and calls to action in pursuit of a more just world. At its worst, Martin Luther King Day celebrations feature speakers who empty historical context from his quotes, ignore important nuances in his words, and sanitize his political positions.

This year, not much about the day should be considered predictable. Our time is marked not only by racial unrest and growing public acknowledgement of systemic racism, but a global pandemic and, most immediately, an armed insurrection at our nation’s capitol. The people who planned and executed this siege did so in the name of a sitting president. They consider themselves true patriots, acting to restore a government they feel was taken from them, and determined to terrorize, take hostages, and possibly murder the Vice President and members of Congress. This was unlike any civil unrest in recent memory, and done, ostensibly, under the guise of patriotism.

What can Dr. King’s legacy teach us about patriotism and the role of resistance in a functioning democracy? In Dr. King’s time, the FBI sought to discredit him, and a Senate Select Committee sought to “neutralize” him. Understanding King’s legacy means knowing about the charges of subversion and subsequent FBI surveillance in response to his civil rights activism, his alleged connections to communism, and his condemnation of US participation in the Vietnam war. He was a harsh critic of government and corporate institutions. He was a protester and an instigator. He inspired others to action. But he is separated by last week’s so-called protesters by more than his tactics; like his politics or not, he exemplifies the American patriot.

Today, in honoring Dr. King, is the perfect day to spend a few minutes affirming what true patriotism must look like. Michael Eric Dyson wrote in 2006 that “King was one of the greatest patriots this nation has produced.” Dyson explains, “There’s a thin line between patriotism and nationalism... King never confused a healthy patriotism with a myopic nationalism that often wrapped ethnic bigotry and racial terror in a flag and around a cross.” 

I don’t agree with everything that Dr. King said or did. I’m not sure that I share all of his views about economics, and I don’t support all of his teachings on the role of women. But there are three fundamental principles of patriotism that Dr. King’s words and deeds exemplify for us. First is the commitment to the principles of democracy, such as the fundamental worth of all people. Second is the search for truth, often imperfect and uncertain, but pursued with a shared understanding of what constitutes evidence, and which requires dissent, debate, and engagement across differences. Third is pursuit of that more perfect union motivated by love of country rather than hatred.

Let us affirm and hold strong this understanding of patriotism. Dr. King gave his life defending our “country's best side against its worst” (Dyson). Let us live our own lives committed to democracy, searching for truth, and acting with love to meet the challenges of our time.