Martin Luther King Jr.'s Message Lives On

Mayor Cory Booker

Cory Booker is mayor of Newark, N.J.

Claiborne: Did your parents talk to you about Dr. King? Did you learn from them, did you learn in school, out of your own curiosity?

Booker: My parents really were the ones that taught me about Dr. King. I had cassette tapes of the speech when I was growing up that I used to listen to over and over again. In many ways, his oratory inspired me not just to the values and the ideals but his ability to call to the conscience of a country. That really touched and inspired me as a young person. And here I was growing up in a time when that era had sort of passed, but he still was calling me as I played it over and over and over again. Claiborne: In the speech, Dr. King talks about the dream when blacks and whites could live together truly as brothers and sisters, when his daughters would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Are we there now, in 2010, do you believe?

Booker: We're a lot further along, but we still have work to do. We're still a nation that in many ways exemplifies the highest of human values.

Claiborne: Does the arc of history also bend from his life to Barack Obama as president, to Cory Booker as mayor of Newark?

Booker: Look, I would say absolutely yes, but let's not just draw dots between an African-American and an African-American. King never said I'm marching for black justice. He said I'm marching for justice, for justice for our country, for our nation to fulfill its hope and promise that we all have.

And King was not easy. There's nothing simplistic about him. He was a person that often went across the grain of our consciousness and forced us into positions of discomfort, so that we could wake up to the larger urgencies of the time. I think we need to remember him for the totality of who he was. He was not someone seeking racial justice, simply. He was looking for a deeper, richer, more textured, just democracy here in the United States of America.

We have come a long way, but more than anything, I think Martin Luther King Day should be a time where we gird ourselves, where we take strength and solace from the past but allow it to inspire us for the work that still needs to be done.

Claiborne: What was special about his oratory?

Booker: The most powerful oratory that I see that's out there in the history of humanity is that oratory that pushes us to expand our vision, a moral vision of what's possible, and challenges us and motivates us and demands that we do something to make that expanded moral vision real. And that's the power of King. He was a motivating force. He awakened the moral giant within each of us and demanded action and inspired us to do so.

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