This time every year we note a great American – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and there are specials on TV, copious amounts of articles online and in print, and ceremonies marking his significant contribution to this country and the world. While all these things are wonderful, they are sort of like the true meaning of Christmas; we shouldn’t just be peaceful and generous one day a year but 365 days a year.
This is also true of Dr. King’s legacy – this is an everyday call to everyone to follow his lead. It’s not enough to celebrate what he stood for and then get up tomorrow and go about business as usual. Dr. King dedicated his life to not only promote peace and dignity for all people, but to celebrate service and adherence to one’s faith every day of the year.
One thing we should do is read or listen to his words. One of our good fortunes is to have an archive of his speeches on video, in recordings, and in print. We can only imagine what it must have been like to hear Abraham Lincoln’s oration, but Dr. King’s catalogue is at our disposal. This should be shared with our children and one another because it is some of the best writing and speaking of the 20th century – or any other century for that matter.
Dr. King was the leader of the Civil Rights movement from the 1950s until his death in 1968, but he was also a Baptist minister. His faith is apparent in his words for he invokes the right to dignity and freedom that all people inherently deserve as children of God. This motivated all of King’s work because he was not just a proponent for his people but all of God’s people.
Consider these words: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” This comes from a man who obviously had an intimate connection with his God, and in essence understood the basic message that “love” is the answer. We recall U2’s beautiful song “In the Name of Love” written about Dr. King, and the words of Jesus Christ: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Dr. King dedicated his life to spreading love and was assassinated for his efforts.
All these years later that shot that felled this great man has still failed to silence him. Besides his living legacy of words and a call to peaceful action, there are those of all faiths and races who have taken up the torch to continue his work. In many ways this is so similar to Jesus whose work was carried on by others after him. Both men loved others more than themselves, and in doing so spread an ideology so necessary and compelling that it will never be forgotten.
Why Dr. King’s message is still so resonant is that it’s universal in nature. Men, women, and children will continue to learn from him as long as those torch bearers carry on with his work. The idea is not to disparage others for what they are but recognize their essential human dignity. Dr. King understood that ignorance was less someone’s fault and more society’s responsibility. When he wrote his eloquent letter from the Birmingham jail he noted all the incongruous indignities black people suffered – and in doing so he highlighted an American travesty that had to be changed as soon as possible. This is why he refused to “wait” as white leaders were asking him to do.
In many ways we are still waiting for the peace and love that Dr. King fought and died for. Even with a black President of the United States, there are still those in America who fail to respect him and others who are different than they are. This is because racism – and this is the thing no one likes to talk about even in 2015 – is still imbued in our culture. We see this not only in America but around the world. People are fighting one another and imposing punishment on those who are not the same race, religion, and gender.
This day we celebrate Dr. King must be spread forward to every day of the year, and in doing so we need to make a difference in small and big ways. We need to have a dialogue about racism – no matter how difficult that may be – for the sake of our children and our children’s children. Just as Dr. King said (in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech) that he wished for the day his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character, we must strive for that world to be a reality. We can only do that by living life by a code that promotes unity and discards adversity. True peace will never be accomplished in this world without recognizing that love is the only weapon that will ever stop the evils of war and oppression.
Dr. King said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” As you go about this day and the days to come, ask yourself this question. If you don’t like the answer, perhaps you have some work to do. Judging by the events we see happening all over the world, it would seem we all have much work to do. Dr. King showed us all the way; now we have to be brave enough to follow him.
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