In 37 years, no one has replaced King

Tuesday, January 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:03 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

In the nearly 37 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., many of us would have believed that several individuals of equal stature would have come on the scene.

Although some have found a few people they have felt worthy of great distinction and monumental praise, none seems to have risen to become the recipient of the kind of universal respect and admiration as did King.

Although many view his birthday celebration as just another day to “goof off,” I think enough people realize how badly the world has suffered because of the lack of prophetic figures in our midst able to help us assess and weigh events as they swirl around us. Often, we are overwhelmed by the sadness and confusion that overtakes us as we try to plow through the messy present in which our future seems adrift.

It’s difficult, sometimes, to remember that young people born in the past few decades have never lived in a time when great statesmen frequently appeared on the scene to address the public in an effort to relieve our anxieties and rally our strengths in order get us all on an equal playing field. It’s been so long since we enjoyed the advantages of having great orators who were able to lift our spirits and make us willing to take action to help the country resolve its difficulties; it seems like that happened in another lifetime.

And it’s certainly not that the great speechwriters are not still around. I suppose the quality of our leadership has evolved in direct proportion to the quality of the mass audience. Heroes nowadays, of course, are animated alien creatures capable of supernatural powers. Otherwise they would be too ordinary to have any real powers. Popular culture has affected every aspect of our lives. When was the last time Americans of all faiths and political parties were excited enough about something wonderful happening in the country that they were willing to run in the streets and embrace one another? The end of World War II? The day man landed on the moon?

Can anything good come out of this mess? Well, we need to have people of inspiration and prophetic vision like King to show us the way. I truly believe that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that there have been other times such as these. But what it takes are individuals of exceptional capabilities to discern the way out the predicament. We have a nasty tendency, though, to kill all of our prophets when we don’t like the message or the direction they might suggest.

And so the price we pay then is to wander around day after day endlessly searching everywhere we know to look for answers. And pragmatists that we are, when we can’t find the right answers, we change the questions. When we come up lacking, we satisfy our frustrations by telling ourselves that this is the way things are. Simply put, we have settled so long for third, fourth and fifth best that we no longer remember what it’s like to know the best.

It would be wonderful to have someone emerge who could pick up where King left off and guide us through this segment of the 21st century. Not all of us, but some of us, are aware that we need an injection of sound, spiritual undergirding. We need moral and ethical leadership by example, not by moral pronouncements. True prophets are born, not made. It’s not up to us to try to create them out of people we like.

Some people, for example, need help in dealing with the moral issues arising out of the situation in Iraq. Other people need help in addressing the many social dilemmas of our times. Multiple marriages, questions of gender and the plight of throwaway children are a few of the weighty issues that can use a sound sifting as we search for healthy attitudes for successful living.

We need a new set of community standards that are updated and reflect the new age of scientific knowledge and spiritual growth. This is the age of information. There is no place in those standards for discrimination and personal prejudices.

If the majority of our population insists that there should be no separation of church and state and the Constitution is amended to reflect that, then all faiths will have to be represented. And personally, I suspect, that is not what people are trying for. Folks who claim that the country was founded on Christian principles are reading from a different history book from the rest of us. There was nothing Christian about slaughtering American Indians and enslaving black people. There is something Christian about confession, repentance and agreeing to sin no more.

Developing healthy attitudes requires that we take time to hammer out our diverse opinions. We need the kind of leadership that sets the pace for such open discourse. State’s rights advocates will probably demand that each of the 50 be allowed to make its rules and regulations, which will undoubtedly lead toward lawsuits throughout eternity.

In the meantime, it’s becoming less and less distinct what we Americans, as a group, stand for. I don’t think it is a good idea to leave it to the national media to define for us who we are. I think we can depend on them to tell us who they want us to be.

We need another voice to guide us.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen by calling at 882-5734 or e-mailing her at

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