The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday provides all of us with an opportunity to reflect on the life, work, and legacy of Dr. King. It is also a Monday holiday—so it is a big part of a long weekend for families. It seems to me that Dr. King’s life and legacy contain much that we can appreciate as individuals (and families) as well as lessons about equality, democracy, and patriotism.
Some of the things that Dr. King said in his sermons or public appearances are quite obviously directed at the society that we share. When he wrote, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men,” it is clear that he is commenting on our societal approach to technology, particularly as it applied to the development of the weapons being used to wage war (in this case, the war in Vietnam).
When he wrote, “Through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers—or we will all perish together as fools,” he was addressing the need for moral and ethical courage in the policies and practices within our treaties and agreements with other nations, as well as the way our neighborhoods and communities value and treat one another.
But sometimes Dr. King shifted his focus to the individual, and to the way we teach and raise our children. “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity” could be directed at how we teach our children respect and tolerance, and how we address prejudices that may have been passed down across generations. And when he said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter,” it sounds as if he is calling us each—individually—to accountability as parents, neighbors, and citizens.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was an advocate of non-violence, a commitment that didn’t waiver even though he and his family were threatened. In words that are relevant today, even though they were spoken in 1967, a year before his death, Dr. King challenged us to think about what matters most. “You ought to believe something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days. I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I use.” Nearly 50 years later we see the violence of the sixties returning as a means of expressing a point of view—a practice Dr. King roundly denounced.
As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let us take seriously his commitment to non-violence. Let us communicate it to our children and affirm it in our own homes and lives. And may the America that Dr. King imagined and spoke about so eloquently be realized in our lives and communities.