Today is Martin Luther King, Jr Day in the United States. Established by act of Congress and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, the holiday is observed annually on the third Monday of January throughout the Union, to honor Dr King’s great contributions to human and civil rights.
Dr King was born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia. He was shot dead at 6:01 pm, April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
He devoted much of his short 39 years on Earth to advancing civil rights in the United States. Although most closely associated with the African American civil rights movement, his words and actions were inclusive and expansive, resonating with universal themes of democracy, justice, and fairness already embedded in the American conscience.
He became a Baptist minister, studied Mahatma Gandhi and the Quakers, traveled to India, advocated tirelessly for nonviolent civil disobedience and an end to racial segregation, led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, became the Conference’s first president, helped organize the landmark 1963 March on Washington, and became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Near the end of his life he increasingly focused attention on issues of poverty and the Vietnam War. Perpetually surrounded by controversy, he was routinely attacked for being both too radical and too conservative, often simultaneously. His life was threatened, and his travels were disrupted by bomb threats. But he persevered.
Dr King was a powerful orator. His thundering sermons and passionate speeches helped define, direct, and energize the civil rights movement. His was not a vague, inchoate discontent acted out in muddled theatrics. He articulated a compelling vision, nuanced strategy, and specific goals to lead America toward fulfilling its great promise to its citizens.
Rather than muse in my own voice about his legacy, I would rather share some of his words that have been most meaningful to me over the years:
“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
“Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.”
“If a man is called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.”
“All I’m saying is simply this, that all life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.”
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop … And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” (From the closing of Dr King’s last speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated.)
“Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” (Reported to be Dr King’s last words, spoken to musician Ben Branch on the motel balcony just before the shot rang out.)
Dr King is a quintessentially American hero. As described by President Obama in his holiday proclamation:
“On a hot summer day nearly half a century ago, an African American preacher with no official title or rank gave voice to our Nation’s deepest aspirations, sharing his dream of an America that ensured the true equality of all our people. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr inspired a movement that would push our country toward a more perfect Union.
“At a time when our Nation was sharply divided, Dr King called on a generation of Americans to be ‘voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion.’ His example stirred men and women of all backgrounds to become foot soldiers for justice, and his leadership gave them the courage to refuse the limitations of the day and fight for the prospect of tomorrow. Because these individuals showed the resilience to stand firm in the face of the fiercest resistance, we are the benefactors of an extraordinary legacy of progress.”
That’s a legacy best honored and celebrated by embracing the “inescapable network of mutuality” that binds us together, and by engaging in personal acts of service that improve, empower, and uplift the communities in which we live.