In The Human Use of Human Beings:Cybernetics and Society, Norbert Wiener’s humane and prophetic examination of the effects of new technologies on culture, psychology, and human imagination and potential, Wiener offered up a thoroughly rational definition of equality: “By which what is just for A or B remains just when the positions of A and B are interchanged.”
Wiener’s book was first published in 1950, and later that same decade Martin Luther King, Jr. would begin to test the Missouri mathematician’s cool (and seemingly irrefutable) proposition against the more complex algebraic of America’s attitudes and public policy regarding race.
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
--M.L.K., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” 1963,
Like many righteous outlaws, of course, King paid a steep price for the things he espoused and fought for, and though there are still, 50 years later, plenty of people who would qualify—and ignore—his legacy, King’s words (and deeds) still have the power to inspire. That they remain relevant and retain their urgency into the 21st century is both a tribute to the man and an indicator of how far we still have to go.
So on this national holiday that remains in some circles contentious, and that is unacknowledged in far too many others, it only seems fitting to spend a little time actually listening to and thinking about some of the things King said, wrote, and accomplished. With that in mind, here's a brief Martin Luther King Day sampler:
The I Have a Dream speech, from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.
Beyond Vietnam –A Time to Break Silence, a speech delivered on April 4, 1967 at the Riverside Church in New York.
A collection of King’s speeches –including his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance—in text form.
The King Center, established in 1968, provides a nice historical overview, and has a large photo and video archive.
It’s also worth digging into the essays of James Baldwin, a contemporary of Dr. King’s, where you’ll find plenty of lovely proofs of Norbert Wiener’s principle of equality. Like this: “Hatred, which could destroy so much, never failed to destroy the man who hated, and this was an immutable law.”
Finally, a few selections from the poetry of Langston Hughes: A Dream Deferred. The Negro Speaks of Rivers. And I Look at the World.