MLK Statue AP

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2011, on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Do you know who Martin Luther King, Jr. is?”  I doubt that you could ask that question of anyone over ten years old without receiving a resounding, “Yes!”  As I look at the current state of Black America, changing that question might yield a more honest response.  A better question might be, “Can you tell me what Martin Luther King, Jr. stood for?”  I believe that to be the more important question.  If on no other date, I believe that is the question Americans, especially African Americans, should be willing to reconsider every January 15th.

I speak subjectively, but like most cultural figures who ascend to iconic status, especially those who have been honored with a commemorative holiday, the public tends to designate one or two central facts into which they encapsulate the honoree.  When asked to identify specific achievements of Dr. King, most speak of his “I Have a Dream Speech” or his March from Selma to Montgomery.   Some may even remember his Nobel Prize or the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church.  

Whatever the significance of those events and the outcomes derived from them, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was more than a collage of events that we put together into a mural that we call the man.  I believe that many have elevated the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the point that we overshadow the substance of who he was.  Many have substituted image for content and ignore the lessons taught by his personal philosophies, example and actions.

“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”

Dr. King was a nation and world changer.  There are few historical figures who have influenced positive change in the manner of Dr. King.  His principle understanding was that for humanity to flourish, we had to accept the depth of our connection to each other and work for harmony and mutual respect

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically.  Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Dr. King was a scholar, but he understood that the exercise of ethical behavior and conduct was as much a consequence of morals and values than the acquisition of information alone.  It is important for you to know, but it is more important for you to know what is right to do.  

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Dr. King was a risk-taker.  There was no doubt that the larger portion of his life was dictated by an extreme faith in God.  His ability to move progressively in the face of threats of physical violence and multiple attempts on his life is testament to the strength of his faith and purpose.

“We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.”

Dr. King forgave.  His forgiveness was entwined in the belief that yielding to hatred was more debilitating and destructive to the hater than to the hated.  He knew that hatred is like a malignancy that spreads within until it destroys the soul.  

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

Dr. King believed in humankind.  Although some may have been unwilling to act accordingly, Dr. King believed in an innate human understanding of right and wrong.  His challenge to us was to reject, for personal benefit or the inclination to gain unfair advantage, any action that is known to be wrong or immoral.  He placed great value in maintaining one’s moral authority. 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Dr. King knew that engagement in “the struggle” was a long-term commitment that would require us – men and women alike – to face uncomfortable choices.  He left us this admonition with the inspiration that we could overcome.

“I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

The holiday we celebrate in honor of Dr. King is much more than a day off from work or school.  While we may honor his memory by participating in a day of service, his holiday is more significant than that.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday gives us the opportunity to read about, reflect upon and internalize the principles that made him the great leader that he was.  It is our opportunity to actively participate in keeping his dream alive.

Dr. E. Faye Williams is.  202/678-6788