In what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 90th year, we celebrate his life and legacy amid discord, government shutdown, and an extremely divided nation. Given the important lessons Dr. King taught us in both life and death, the state of our society is probably not a very fitting tribute. There are so many lessons he gave in his short time with us, a number of which we can recite without much thought: commitment to non-violence, determination, dignity, and love. As we observe his holiday this week, we should take some time to remember and honor one of Dr. King’s greatest, but least emphasized, legacies, one he left behind for us to embrace and personify: accountability.

In 1967, Dr. King sat down for a rare long-form television interview with Mike Douglas. It contains some of the most thoughtful and important comments ever to come from a man whose life was filled with thoughtful and important moments. You can find it online if you’re interested, and I encourage you to watch it, if you can. The topics included Dr. King’s leadership and the Civil Rights movement, of course. But, given the then-current state of events and some recent statements he had made, the interview spoke at length about another topic for which he was less well known: his opposition to the Vietnam War.

In our time, it’s easy to forget that opposing the Vietnam War was about far more than that single conflict; it was also about challenging a societal order that could produce and later attempt to justify that war – the same order that could produce and attempt to justify segregation, it turns out. As this interview shows, Dr. King’s stand against that war stood out in stark contrast from the public’s general sentiment at the time. He had called for America’s leaders to do better, to be accountable, and expressed his desire for America to be the “moral example of the world.” Telling the most powerful nation in the world that it was not living up to its ideals and responsibility was an extremely controversial position to take in 1967 (and today), but one, as he explains in this interview, that was wholly in line with his beliefs.

Acknowledging that his position was not popular, Dr. King stated, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In that statement, Dr. King gave us the single greatest tool for effecting change in our world, one that still have at our disposal today. He was reminding us that accountability is not always “convenient” and can be uncomfortable, but it is ultimately the right path. Dr. King could no more embrace a violent conflict halfway around the world than he could embrace it in Selma, Alabama. He had championed non-violence as a powerful agent of change and would not be swayed from that position to support the war in Vietnam, regardless of who or what forces opposed him.

This was not just some intellectual accountability, either. Dr. King demanded more than logical consistency in his political positions. He demanded moral accountability. As a man of God, Dr. King felt deeply that he had an obligation to follow the path laid before him by Jesus. His regular references to love and faith are not accidental. They are signals for each of us to be morally accountable for our actions, accountable to not just each other, but to a higher power, as well. Out of this comes the commitment to non-violence and peaceful protest, calling out others’ hate without letting their hate consume us. That is moral accountability in its most fundamental form.

Moral accountability is, of course, a difficult aspiration, something we all strive toward with varying degrees of success. As humans, we fall and are strayed from that path as we navigate through life. Even Dr. King fell short, at times. But, we must find our way back to that path at all cost because the struggle is not over. We have a lot more to do. As Rev. Jesse Jackson once said, “We won everything we fought for, but don’t have what we need.” Dr. King’s lesson in accountability, then, remains to be internalized and put into practice by those of us who follow his leadership.

Our challenges in Mount Vernon are many. They are difficult and will require some hard choices. But, we need to make them and, importantly, be accountable for those decisions. It is time to stop hiding this City’s challenges in the shadows and bring them out into the light. It is time for this City’s elected leaders to stand together, arm-in-arm, against the difficulties we face ahead. If any of those leaders are incapable or unwilling to make that journey, they should stay on the sidelines or retreat back to the shadows. Those of us who choose to march forward must do so together, with purpose. We must get on the same page and recognize not any of us can do it alone. If we stand together, we can succeed. If we do not, we will surely fail the people of this City.

As an elected leader, accountability is our most important currency. We should embrace accountability’s challenges and its possibilities, whatever the cost. This is one lesson Dr. King gave to us. He gave it freely and asked us only to heed its power. Ultimately, he paid the steepest price so that we might have this lesson. Let’s not squander the opportunity.

I leave you with another quote from Dr. King, one about hope and optimism, one that is both memorable and profound. Hopefully, it can serve to remind us that our challenges do not define us; our response to those challenges does. It also tells us that our goal remains, even if we face adversity along the way. “So even though we face difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream.”

If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected]

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