Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is one of my heroes.
The dictionary defines a hero as “a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.” On a personal level, a hero is someone we hold in especially high esteem. For me, Martin Luther King Jr.,k is both a national and personal hero.
Read his speeches and weigh them in the context of his times. Study his actions and his ability to resist enormous pressures from those who thought he was going too far as well as those who thought he wasn’t going far enough, and it’s evident that he was an extraordinary inspirational leader with uncommon vision and strength.
Dr. King didn’t simply talk about his dreams; he went to the battle lines time and time again to fight for them and what he did made a difference. He devoted his too-short life to bring us to a more compassionate and just world where, in his words, people would be judged, not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. He was murdered before he reached the age of 40 in the midst of that fight.
Last year I wrote a commentary called “It’s Time Again for Heroes.” I want to share:
“When I was very young it was important to have heroes, someone to look up to and admire. And I had plenty. I admired cowboys, baseball players and presidents. But by the time I got to college I looked at the world through a more cynical lens. Everyone had flaws. Hero-worship was naive. The white-hat warrior for truth and justice was replaced by the anti-hero, flawed but interesting characters motivated by crass but very human motives.
“This cynicism still darkens our worldview and, today, many young people don’t have heroes. Instead we have celebrities and superstars, men and women of accomplishment but not necessarily character.
“Maybe the events of September 11 will wake us up to the reality that cynicism not heroism is the false illusion, that we have always had plenty of heroes, we just haven’t paid any attention to them. And I don’t just mean those who sacrifice their lives for others in great acts of valor. We have everyday heroes, seemingly ordinary men and women who live noble and worthy lives, who overcome their fears, help their neighbors, and love their kids. (Incidentally, these are the kind of people who work with and for the YMCA)
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time.
“Well, there are lots of parents, teachers and coaches as well as cops, soldiers, and firefighters who are also leaving their footprints in the sand of time. Take a moment to appreciate them. Then dedicate yourself to becoming one of them.”
Dr. King is a hero on a grand scale. His courageous pursuit of the noble purpose of civil justice, even at the ultimate cost of his own life, surely is worthy of appreciation, admiration and a special day of commemoration.
I know of no better way to convey the full texture of Dr. King’s mind and message than to use his own words. Often the cadence enhanced his content as he became the conscience of the nation.
In one of his earliest writings in 1958 he said, “Government action is not the whole answer to the present crisis, but it is an important partial answer. Morals cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. The law cannot make an employer love me but it can keep him from refusing to hire me because of the color of my skin.”
Four years later he added, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important.”
One of Dr. Martin Luther King’s greatest character strengths was his sense of personal responsibility. He understood the importance of personal action even when it required sacrifice. In Stride Toward Freedom (1958) he said: “Human progress is neither automatic or inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
And he ratcheted up his call to action and personal accountability when, paraphrasing Gandhi, he said “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it.” Dr. King was a man of action who taught that passivity and apathy are unacceptable options. He insisted that we are accountable not only for what we do but for what we don’t do. He agreed with Edmund Burke’s observation: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Among Dr. King’s historically significant contributions was his advocacy of and adherence to nonviolence, while at the same time engaging in aggressive confrontation with and resistance to injustice. He often combined the powerful reasoning of a philosopher with the charismatic leadership and a stirring oratorical skills of a preacher to educate the nation about the nature of moral civil disobedience and the fallacy of “the end justifies the means” arguments.
“We will never have peace in the world,” he said in The Trumpet of Conscience (1967), “until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from the means, because the means represent the idea in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you cannot reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree.”
His 1963 Letter from the Birmingham Jail lays out the case for civil disobedience: “I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in realty expressing the very highest respect for law.” What’s so important here is his recognition that morally justified civil disobedience requires the acceptance of consequences. He believed that if he was to make the point he wanted to make he had to go to jail and he was willing to do so.
Yet it is his August 28, 1963 address at the March on Washington that is most moving and most remembered:
“And when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of that old negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”
“I have a dream,” he added. “That one day, on the red hills of Georgia, sons of former slaves and sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But our celebration today must be about more than sharing eloquent rhetoric. It should honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by reminding us of the issues and principles that drove him and the work that is yet to be done.
Dr. King’s central themes were human dignity and freedom, social justice, and the elimination of racism and bigotry. These are still very real issues both here and throughout the world.
In this country, the disease of racism and discrimination against what were commonly called Negroes began with slavery. Yet, I think most Americans tend to view slavery and the practice of kidnapping human beings from their homeland so they could be sold and owned as property as remote ancient history.
If we have not personally experienced an event, including the horrors associated with slavery or pervasive discrimination, it can be hard to establish and maintain the kind of emotional connection that is necessary to engage the conscience. I know that I had no real emotional notion of the staggering evil of slavery and the toll it took on individual human lives until Alex Haley’s magnificent book Roots became a public television sensation. It’s one thing to know about and even hate the abstract concept of slavery, it is quite another to understand and empathize with the intense and continuous suffering to individuals associated with these human practices.
And even though I lived through the modern civil rights movement led by Dr. King, I find it hard to believe that was only decades ago to the month that George Wallace, after being elected as Governor of Alabama, declared in his inaugural address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!”
Many in my generation have forgotten and many in the younger generation never knew how prevalent ugly and pervasive institutionalized segregation and uninhibited racial bigotry still were even in the 50s and 60s.
In addition to private forms of bigotry that kept Black people out of certain neighborhoods and apartments, jobs and graduate schools, there was in the South widespread government sanction for discrimination. Poll taxes were designed to prevent them from voting while many states passed laws prohibited intermarriage and allowing local governments to forbid black Americans from going to certain schools, riding in the front of the bus, using public swimming pools or drinking fountains.
American consciousness was raised in the 1960’s by a small army of leaders and authors who did not always agree on tactics but shared an active hatred for racism. This included James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm X, Michael Harrington and, of course, Dr. King himself.
Listen to the words and feel the depth of conviction and pain revealed by them and allow these insights to reach your consciences as well as your mind.
Revealing deep resentment, James Baldwin in 1962 said, “At bottom, to be colored means that one has been caught in some utterly unbelievable cosmic joke, a joke so hideous and in such bad taste that it defeats all categories and definitions.”
Ralph Ellison expressed a similar frustration differently. “I am an invisible man,” he said. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”
Finally, we should take note of what textbook writer Michael Harrington said in his breakthrough book, The Other America: “To be a Negro is to participate in a culture of poverty and fear that goes far deeper than any law for or against discrimination. . . . After the racist statutes are all struck down, after legal equality has been achieved in the schools and in the courts, there remains the profound institutionalized and abiding wrong that white America has worked on the Negro for so long.”
Thankfully, and in no small part due to Dr. King’s efforts, we are a very different country today. There is far more justice and far less racism but it would be a great mistake to believe the work is done.
Recently we heard a lot about Senator Strom Thurmond’s campaign for the presidency on a segregationist platform. And the political controversy concerning Senator Trent Lott’s comments about that candidacy opened fresh wounds.
Yet our personal and social penchant for denial, rationalization and self-delusion presents one of the largest hurdles to real reform.
As monumental as were Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s efforts and achievements in pursuit of social justice, civil liberties and racial harmony is, his legacy goes well beyond these issues. There are lessons from his life that inspire and guide our own search for significance.
In the hurly burly of everyday living it’s hard to keep perspective. Money, position, pride and power seem so important – until they’re not. At the end of their lives, no one says, “I wish I spent more time at the office.” It’s a matter of priorities.
So, if you want to know how to live your life, just think about what you want people to say about you after you die and live backwards.
A second lesson from Dr. King life is that we all have a fundamental responsibility to recognize and seek to close the gap between the “is” and the “ought.” When President John F. Kennedy observed that “Life is not fair” he was accurately reporting on moral shortcomings of the real world, he wasn’t saying that it’s okay for any person or institution to be unfair.
Finally, Dr. King’s life reminds us of the important role adversity plays in our lives. Once more, I’d like to share with you a radio commentary dealing with this situation.
“No one wants pain, troubles or hardship but it’s absolutely inevitable that we all will have plenty of each. And they won’t always come in forms we prefer, doses we think are manageable or at times of our choosing. Adversity is never welcome, but it is not necessarily our enemy.
In fact, our character, more than anything else, will determine the quality of our lives, and our character will be shaped by how they deal with adversities – from everyday dislikes, difficulties and disappointments to deaths and personal disasters.
Shakespeare said, “Sweet are the uses of adversity / Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous, / Wears yet a precious jewel in his head.” Adversity’s precious jewel is cut by the chisels of confidence and competence, forged in a process of confronting and overcoming difficulties.
The path to achievement and fulfillment often passes through the aggravations and hazards of life’s thorny underbrush. Once we learn that adversities are simply obstacles, not prisons, we can develop the courage, patience, perseverance and the will to solve problems we cannot avoid and bear pains we cannot relieve.
As the blade is sharpened by friction with a harder stone, so to character is strengthened through struggle and striving. Nietzsche put it another way, ‘What doesn’t destroy me makes me stronger.’
This poem by an unknown author reminds us that what we need is not always what we want:
I asked for Strength / And God gave me Difficulties to make me strong.
I asked for Wisdom / And God gave me Problems to solve.
I asked for Prosperity / And God gave me Brain and Brawn to work.
I asked for Courage / And God gave me Danger to overcome.
I asked for Love / And God gave me Troubled People to help.
I asked for Favor / And God gave me Opportunities.
I got nothing I wanted.
But I received everything I needed.”
There is only one truly appropriate way to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and that is to conscientiously assure that our personal attitudes and actions advance his work.
The night before he was killed he uttered these prophetic words: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and . . . I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing any man.”