Emory Magazine: From the President


William M. Chace

Transforming the ages

On January 15, my wife, JoAn, and I were present at Ebenezer Baptist Church for the extraordinary outpouring of memory and song about that remarkable human being, Martin Luther King Jr. We heard a great number of voices and a great variety of the powers of speech. It's all we really have now, in a way--the talk and the memory, the reflections and the readings--because we can't recover the man. He is gone. And it is difficult for us to recover what really gave him power, which was not his language, but rather his actions, the accomplishment of which was vastly more difficult than our imaginations can allow us to understand: the hardships, the omnipresent threat of violence to him and to his family, the resolve, the unbelievable tenacity necessary for his mission. It is easy to forget the modesty, simple brave decency, and enormous courage that this solitary individual possessed.

Let me shift back to more than a hundred years ago to capture some other words. After the dying Abraham Lincoln was transported out of Ford's Theater and across Tenth Street in Washington, D.C., he reposed for some twelve hours in a boarding house. When he at last expired, one of his closest colleagues in the Cabinet said memorably, "Now he belongs to the ages."

It is difficult to think of many living Americans about whom that might one day be said. It was said rightly of Lincoln; it can rightly be said of Martin Luther King Jr.

But the phrase is, in a way, hard to understand. It has a mystery to it. What does it mean to belong to the ages? What kind of ownership is that? What are the ages?

The phrase means, of course, that Lincoln and King belong somehow to history. As long as this country exists, they will be indelibly a part of our history. In that sense, they are America.

History possesses Martin Luther King Jr. Yet history is a fickle and uncontrollable master; nobody possesses history. History is endlessly changing, endlessly plastic. It does extraordinary things; it has powers of explanation and of misunderstanding and distortion. What do many, particularly many young Americans, know of Dr. King now? "I have a dream," perhaps? The cruel, stupid savagery that cut him down in Memphis?

We have only fragments--a few quotations, a photograph or two, a voice in recording. History has a reductive mastery and leaves us with only shards.

Here at the University, one of the things we do is study history; we feel that we can be illuminated by history. However, history is something that we as Americans at times want to repudiate. We don't want the obligations of history.

While we want to remember Dr. King, there is that in us that wishes to move on and to make a life for ourselves without that extraordinary nuisance that he was -- a nuisance because he was so powerfully virtuous and good.

And there is an American problem with our relationship with history. Americans are the people who suffer permanently from amnesia. We want to believe that we can always be born again, that we are a new people, that we don't have a history but we just have opportunity -- that all that was in the past is something that will only chain us down.

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald memorably depicts the contrary motion in our cultural life, desiring future possibility and, at the same time, knowing that we have an obligation to the past: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Dr. King represents some large part of that past. And we must try to recover him, try to reach back and find out what he was and imagine him.

All indications in Georgia and Alabama in the forties, when he came of age, were that he was trapped and that segregation would last forever. Yet there was in him the belief that he would overcome the chains of history, that he could believe in the future. Something gave him hope. Something gave him a sense of possibility, a sense that he could be part of the transformation of history.

If we at Emory can get to that--if we can be inspired ourselves the same way he was inspired--then we have a chance of changing history. We have to go back to the seed bed of what he was--an amazingly courageous, enormously patient man who believed, with almost no advantages in his hand, that he could change this country. And he did. And out of that, I trust, we can all have hope.

Return to Spring 1995 contents page.