There is a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that speaks far more than a thousand words. It shows him sitting at a desk, presumably working. At the moment the picture was taken, he is looking up, lost in thought.
That photograph, both sides reflected back at the viewer, inspires me more than any other. It illustrates how he must have felt. His cause was just, but the struggle was long and arduous. The unjust laws, the death threats, along with the internal struggles we all have – self-doubt, laziness, and fear – are all etched onto his visage. But still, his resolve remains. In that moment, he is a man who has traveled a long road and, while weary, is determined to continue.
Living in Atlanta, I am surrounded by Dr. King's legacy. My alma mater is only a few blocks from his birthplace and boyhood home. On my way to work each day, I drive past the museum devoted to his life. I’ve often taken friends to see where he and his father preached. His legacy is woven deep into the soul of this city and we are proud of our native son.
Yet sometimes I think we’ve lost sight of his vision. We’ve come a long way in sixty years and there still is work to do. The disproportional number of black men in America’s prisons is just one of many facts one could cite as to how racism is still present in the United States. We need to address these things, but if nothing else, I take solace in the fact that those conversations are taking place. We should talk about it more often and quickly need to turn word into deed, but we are at least trying to continue the work of creating an America free of racial bias.
What concerns me are some of the other aspects of Dr. King’s message and method that have been lost. First and foremost is his principle of nonviolence. Though certainly not the first or last to use this tactic of social protest, the Civil Rights protests under Dr. King (as opposed to others leaders, such as Malcolm X) successfully utilized nonviolence and helped spread it to other social movements, such as the Vietnam protests.
Too often these days, nonviolence is dismissed as only a tool for the idealist. For example, when asked whether it has a place in the Palestinian struggle, I have seen “experts” and scholars virtually laugh it off as impractical. All too often, I have heard the phrase “sometimes violence is necessary.”
Yet, the Civil Rights movement proved right here in our own cities and on our own streets that nonviolence is effective. Yes, nonviolence will still be met with violence, one only needs to look at the scars John Lewis carries with him to understand the full extent of the harm a nonviolent protester faces. But, King believed and proved that violence need not be met with violence; it can be overcome with love and compassion for one’s enemy. That’s a powerful message, one that at times seems entirely impossible and impractical. However, the example has been set. Now, we only need to remember the lesson.
In addition, Dr. King spent much of the time before his death speaking on the importance of economic justice. He led the Poor People’s Campaign that sought to ease the plight of those below the poverty line in America. King lobbied the government to provide more aid, better housing, and more opportunity for the poor. He believed that economic injustice was just as much of a blight on America’s soul as racism.
Today, we are doing less and less for the poor. Across the country, aid programs are being cut and assistance is being gutted. We are slowly bricking up a wall between those able to get by and those too poor to eke out a better living. We are allowing politicians to refer to efforts designed to help those in poverty as “entitlement” programs and label the poor as worthless sots unwilling to find work or opportunity. It’s here that we should take heed of Dr. King’s words, “It’s all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” There is no simple solution to ease the plight of poverty, not just in America, but the world. However, if we truly seek to follow Dr. King’s example, we should take up the mantle and find new and innovative ways to solve the problem.
Adhering to nonviolence and ending poverty may sound like insurmountable tasks. They may seem like the naïve dreams of an optimist. Yet, there is a reason Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is his most famous. He inspired us to dream and sixty years later, we have moved closer to his vision. The children of former slaves and slave owners do sit atop places like Stone Mountain and Lookout Mountain at the table of brotherhood. The dream is being realized.
Looking back at that photograph, it helps us to remember what we sometimes forget –that he was just a man. A man weighed down by life at times, but still with an eye on the horizon. His abilities were no more superhuman than you or me and, as we’ve learned, he had his follies too. Yet, he was a man who dared to dream and can inspire us to dream as well. Now it is up to us to continue making those dreams a reality.